Elections

Want to see NC’s Senate and governor candidates make campaign speeches? Good luck with that

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, left, shakes hands with North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, right, after a candidate forum in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, June 24, 2016. The two men will face each other in November for governor in what could be the most expensive and watched gubernatorial election this year.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, left, shakes hands with North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, right, after a candidate forum in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, June 24, 2016. The two men will face each other in November for governor in what could be the most expensive and watched gubernatorial election this year. AP

Any undecided voter who wants to see the candidates for governor and U.S. Senate in person would have a challenge this year.

Gov. Pat McCrory, Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic challengers Roy Cooper and Deborah Ross haven’t had many publicly advertised campaign events. They’ve occasionally appeared at presidential campaign events, which are well publicized and draw thousands of people.

Thanks to North Carolina’s swing state status, the presidential campaigns have overshadowed the major statewide races. Voters are hearing from the Senate and governor candidates mostly through millions of dollars in TV ads – many of which are negative.

N.C. State professor of political science Steven Greene said the low-key state campaigns make sense this year. “Over 90 percent of Clinton voters are going to vote for Ross and over 90 percent of Trump voters are going to vote for Burr,” he said. “It’s almost amazing the degree to which it is out of their hands.”

Big public speeches can be risky for candidates in state-level races. “You can give the most amazing speech at a rally, and it’s not making the news,” Greene said, adding that a single gaffe might change the dynamics of a race. “If you say one wrong thing, then boom.”

The campaigns note that their candidates have still kept busy travel schedules, making informal stops in towns across the state where they greet party volunteers or voters at early voting sites. But the news media often isn’t provided with daily candidate schedules, which have been standard practice in the presidential race.

The campaigns are, however, actively engaged with journalists across the state, sending multiple daily news releases and often providing reporters with research about their opponents.

Here’s how each of the candidates has been campaigning in the final months before the election:

Burr: The two-term Republican senator has run the most low-key campaign of the four candidates. He didn’t start regular campaign appearances in North Carolina until October, saying he wouldn’t officially become a candidate until Congress wrapped up.

In his first weeks on the campaign trail, Burr’s campaign released daily travel schedules featuring stops at manufacturing facilities, community events and Republican gatherings. The notices drew a video tracker from a liberal group and reporters who often wanted to ask Burr about the latest Donald Trump controversy.

In mid-October, Burr appears to have changed his approach in a way that “drives my staff crazy,” he said on a leaked recording reported by CNN. The notices stopped – and not just for The News & Observer, which Burr’s campaign later said it would ban from receiving further schedules over criticism of the newspaper’s coverage.

“I don’t tell my staff where I’m going the last three weeks,” Burr said on the recording, adding that his staff wants him to do media interviews, but he believes the practice just generates negative headlines.

“What people have responded to is when (wife) Brooke and I show up at an early voting line in a town that nobody knows we’re there, and in 10 minutes we can work 75 people in the line, and everybody in the town will know about it before the day’s over. ... Retail politics still works, doesn’t it?”

But Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican political strategist, said candidates still need to get their message to a broader audience. “If you spend all day at an early voting place, how many undecided voters are you going to see?” he said. “It could be 50. Without publicity, you’re not really talking to enough people to be key to the outcome of the election.”

Burr campaign spokesman Jesse Hunt said the senator’s approach is “a tried-and-true method of campaigning that allows him to have personal conversations with North Carolina voters about the issues facing our country.”

Ross: Burr’s Democratic opponent is a former state legislator from Raleigh who entered the race a year ago with limited name recognition.

Ross announced her candidacy in a low-key manner in October 2015 – not with a press conference or rally, but through a YouTube video posted after midnight the night of the Democratic primary debate.

After winning the primary, Ross launched an “economic opportunity tour” in May, with publicized appearances in towns across the state. By September, Ross said she’d held events in 90 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

But Ross’ campaign hasn’t released her travel schedule in recent months, despite several requests from The News & Observer. She’s been speaking frequently at rallies for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and has made unannounced appearances at community events like the N.C. A&T University homecoming parade.

Campaign spokesman Cole Leiter issued a statement praising Ross’ style. “She’s taken her energetic, grassroots campaign from county to county talking to voters in their own communities,” Leiter said. “Deborah knows from experience that you can only serve people when you listen to them, and when she is elected as our next senator, folks in our state can count on her to continue putting them first.”

McCrory: Many of McCrory’s public campaign speeches have been at Trump’s presidential rallies. But the governor has had a busy schedule of public appearances covered in the news in recent months, all as part of his official duties.

He’s been speaking frequently at announcements of new jobs coming to North Carolina and ribbon cuttings. And in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, he’s spent weeks touring the damage in Eastern North Carolina and holding news conferences about the state’s response.

His campaign, however, has sent out only a few announcements of candidate forums and other re-election events, so it’s unclear how much time he spends campaigning.

“Gov. McCrory has been the most visible, accessible and active governor in recent memory,” McCrory campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz said last week. “Trick-or-treaters walked up to the governor’s mansion, rang the doorbell and shook his hand on Halloween. He sat down at a restaurant in Henderson yesterday and took pictures with the whole restaurant and talked to them about issues.”

On Tuesday, McCrory held what was billed as a “town hall meeting” in Wake Forest. But the Chamber of Commerce leader who moderated the event said she decided to change the format because most of the questions from the audience were about hot-button issues like House Bill 2 and coal ash. She instead asked her own questions, which did not involve those topics.

Wrenn said McCrory’s focus on official appearances is a smart strategy. “You’re better off being seen as governor than as a candidate,” Wrenn said, adding that McCrory could be getting a boost from his response to flooding. “It can’t have hurt him and it may well have helped him. How much? I don’t know.”

Cooper: McCrory’s opponent, the state’s longtime attorney general, has also been making speeches at presidential events for Clinton’s campaign.

But until recent weeks, his campaign travel schedule wasn’t publicly available, although campaign officials periodically sent out notices of individual events like candidate forums.

Like McCrory, Cooper also toured Matthew flood damage, but his appearances were largely unannounced. The governor’s campaign has criticized Cooper’s schedule.

“Do-Nothing Cooper has been completely hiding behind millions of dollars of special interest attack ads this entire campaign,” Diaz said in an email.

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter defended the attorney general’s approach to campaigning. “Attorney General Cooper is traveling across the state meeting voters and speaking to groups every day,” Porter said. “While Gov. McCrory plants his own questions and runs attack ads ... Attorney General Cooper has taken his plans directly to middle-class families.”

Cooper began releasing a schedule in recent weeks. On Saturday, he was scheduled to meet with campaign volunteers in Durham and then visit tailgating football fans at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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