A Democratic Senate primary may be shaping up next year between former Congressman Heath Shuler of Waynesville and former state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh.
Such a primary would raise questions about Democratic strategy: whether it is better for the party to reach out to the middle with a moderate, or fire up the base with a progressive.
The Democrats have been searching for a candidate to challenge Republican Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem, who is expected to run for a third term.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been the chief recruiter in the race, but in recent months it has been hearing a lot of no’s from prominent Democrats including former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor, and state Treasurer Janet Cowell. State Sen. Dan Blue, a former state House speaker has, so far, been lukewarm at best on the possibility of running.
In recent weeks, the DSCC has shifted its focus to Shuler and Ross, trying to convince them to consider the Senate race. Both seem poised to enter the race, setting up a primary next May.
There are other candidates who are also considering the race, including state Rep. Duane Hall of Raleigh and Chris Rey, mayor of Spring Lake.
The DSCC plays an outsized role, because Senate races are now seen as chess pieces on a national board, with the political parties, PACs and national groups vying to either win or maintain control of the Senate. Burr was recruited to run for the Senate in 2004 by top White House adviser Karl Rove.
One reason is money. The 2012 Senate race, in which Republican Thom Tillis unseated Hagan, cost more than $100 million, with many national groups playing key roles on both sides.
Shuler and Ross would bring different strengths and weaknesses to the race.
Shuler, a businessman and Duke Energy lobbyist, served three terms in Congress, representing the 11th district in the Blue Ridge Mountains after defeating veteran Republican Rep. Charles Taylor.
Representing a conservative area of the state, Shuler was pro-gun rights, anti-abortion and voted against the Affordable Care Act – known better as Obamacare. He did not seek re-election in 2012, when the Republican legislature redrew his district to make it heavily Republican.
Handsome and charismatic, Shuler was a star quarterback at the University of Tennessee where he was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, although he was less successful with the Washington Redskins.
The argument for Shuler is that he has a track record of beating Republicans in a swing district that includes many rural areas and small towns. While Shuler is potentially a strong general election candidate, his hurdle would be in a Democratic primary, which is increasingly dominated by more liberal voters. His possible candidacy is already drawing sharp criticism from party progressives who think he is too conservative to be the party’s standard-bearer.
Ross is a former six-term House member who resigned her seat in 2013. She is a former ACLU lawyer who is whip smart and was among the most articulate members of the House.
Ross has the ability to rally the Democratic Party’s base. Being a woman also gives her a gender advantage. And she is from the Triangle, one of the largest metro areas in the state. But she might have a more difficult time expanding the Democratic base in the general election.
If the primary should come down to a Shuler-Ross race, it would raise strategic questions for the party. The traditional Tar Heel Democratic approach has been to reach for candidates who can appeal to the middle. But in this politically polarized environment, there is a counter argument that one really needs a candidate who will fire up the troops.
Probably the ideal Democratic candidate for the Senate race would have been Foxx – an African-American from the large Charlotte metro area.
But there is also the question of whether the Senate race will really drive voters to the polls in an election that will also include presidential and governor’s races.
Burr is likely to be a stronger candidate than Tillis was in 2014, although the electorate is likely to be more Democratic-leaning next year based on historical trends.
Burr clearly has some assets: he is a favorite of the business community, he spends a lot of time in the state, he comes across in person and on TV as likeable and approachable, and he has a reputation for being a hard-working, knowledgable senator. The fact that he is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee could work to his advantage at a time of growing concern about foreign events.
But his polling numbers are mediocre, suggesting that, like Hagan, he is not very well known across the state.
But none of that may matter. The national climate, particularly the presidential race, could have a major influence on the outcome of the Senate race. If the Republican presidential candidate carries North Carolina, then Burr is probably re-elected. But if the GOP is still dealing with Donald Trump, all bets are off.