Rob Christensen

Christensen: Democrats vie in no-name primary

Former state Rep. Deborah Ross examines a document during a committee meeting at the General Assembly in May 2013 in this file photo. She plans to run against U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.
Former state Rep. Deborah Ross examines a document during a committee meeting at the General Assembly in May 2013 in this file photo. She plans to run against U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.

The Democratic U.S. Senate primary could be called the no-name election.

Most North Carolina voters, polls suggest, have never heard of former state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh or Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey, who now appear likely to be the two main candidates in the March 15 primary, for the right to face Republican Sen. Richard Burr next fall.

A third Democrat, state Sen. Joel Ford of Charlotte, is also looking at the race.

The no-name primary came about because a number of prominent Democrats took a pass on challenging Burr. They include former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, former Congressman Heath Shuler, and state Treasurer Janet Cowell.

The big-name Democrats gave various reasons for forgoing the race. Burr is a strong candidate, but not an invulnerable one. He easily dispatched Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall in 2010 , he is now chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he has a $4 million campaign war chest.

But his approval ratings are underwater, and people do not seem to have very strong opinions about him despite two terms in the Senate.

In trying to retake the Senate, the Democrats need to win four or five seats, depending on whether there is a Democratic or Republican vice president. North Carolina is on most lists as a state that could flip.

Ross, a former veteran lawmaker, was recruited by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the Senate race. She also has the backing of EMILY’s List, the Democratic-leaning women’s group.

Combined with her ties to Democratic lawmakers, and her political base in the populous Triangle, Ross enters the primary with some advantages.

Rey is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and is a captain in the National Guard. He is African-American.

That Ross would just enter the primary in mid-October, just five months before the primary, suggests that the Democratic Party is in disarray, according to Carter Wrenn, a veteran GOP strategist for Sen. Jesse Helms and others. That does not provide much time to raise money and set up a primary campaign.

But Wrenn says the lack of name recognition can be quickly solved if North Carolina, as expected, is targeted by both political parties in the battle for control of the Senate.

“You can pretty much assume there is going to be $50 million, $60 million, $80 million coming in from both sides,” Wrenn said. “That changes the importance of name ID a lot....The national money is going to solve the name ID problem.”

Wrenn said there are plenty of examples of little-known Senate candidates winning after substantial spending on TV ads, including Republican Lauch Faircloth, who upset Democratic Sen. Terry Sanford in 1992, and Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, who beat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014. In fact, Hagan was little known, before an advertising blitz helped her defeat Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2008. In 1998, Democrat John Edwards was little known when he began his challenge against Faircloth.

Wrenn said that while Ross may not have been the first choice of the national Democrats, other Democrats – such as Foxx, Shuler and Cowell – would not have been appreciably better known. The only Democrat with good name recognition, he said, was Hagan, but she also had high negatives after having just gone through the most expensive Senate race in American history.

Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist, concurred. “Even people who have been in office are not that well-known. You don’t get well-known until you spend several million dollars or the other side spends several million dollars,” he said.

A survey taken by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, in September shows Burr beating both Ross and Rey by double figures. But that is largely a generic vote, because roughly 77 percent of voters polled don’t know the no-name candidates.