Republican Sen. Richard Burr's re-election prospects next year could depend on how well his party's presidential ticket fares in North Carolina.
More than any bellwether state in the country, North Carolina tends to elect U.S. senators from the same party of the presidential nominee to whom they give their electoral vote, according to a new study by the Minnesota-based blog Smart Politics.
Since North Carolina went to the direct election of U.S. senators in 1916, only once have Tar Heel voters split their ticket between a Democrat and a Republican. That was in 1968, when Tar Heel voters chose Republican Richard Nixon as president and re-elected Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin Jr.
In each of the last seven cycles when both offices were on the ballot, North Carolina voted for Senate and presidential candidates of the same party.
The only three states where Senate and presidential elections are even more closely tied together are in the Republican strongholds of Kansas, Wyoming and Utah, according to Smart Politics, which is a nonpartisan news site authored by Eric Ostermeier at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
So unless Burr is going to buck historic trends, he needs a Republican presidential candidate to carry the state in 2016.
Same problems as Hagan
Burr faces some of the same problems that former Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan confronted last year. He has a low public profile despite two terms in office. He is not associated with any major issues. His speaking style tends toward policy-wonkese, he largely avoids the Sunday talking head interview shows, and he often campaigns before small audiences.
A statewide survey conducted last monthby Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm based in Raleigh, found that Burr had an approval rating of 34 percent and a disapproval rating of 35 percent. Thirty-one percent of those polled had no opinion.
The poll also found that Burr would start a Senate race with a 6- to 11-point lead over potential Democratic opponents, none of which have yet announced.
Any incumbent with an approval rating under 50 percent is regarded as vulnerable. If you are a blank slate to nearly a third of the voters then you are particularly susceptible to national tides.
That is what happened to Hagan, who lost a close race as a national Republican tide, driven by the unpopularity of Democratic President Barack Obama, helped wash her out of office, and helped elect Republican Thom Tillis in November.
A Bush could help
North Carolina has become an important swing state in presidential elections. In 2008, it was Obama's closest victory, and in 2012, it was Republican Mitt Romney's closest victory.
It looks as if we could be in for more of the same. A PPP survey in December, found an even matchup in North Carolina between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the most likely Democratic nominee, and the prospective Republican nominees.
If it turns out to be a race between Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, then history favors Bush. Former President Bill Clinton twice lost the state, although he came close to winning in 1992. George Herbert Walker Bush carried the state in 1988 and 1992, as did his son George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
But whoever captures the GOP nomination, Burr may need some help from the national ticket to retain his Senate seat.