GOP panics over N.C. Senate race
John McCain has made 3 million voter contacts in Arizona. Rob Portman marshaled 500 college interns to make phone calls and knock on doors in Ohio. And Pat Toomey barnstormed 26 Pennsylvania counties this summer in a bus plastered with the words “security, prosperity, independence.”
Then there’s Richard Burr.
Republicans are privately fretting that the laid-back Burr isn’t campaigning aggressively enough for his third Senate term and potentially risking a GOP seat that the party should otherwise have in the bag. But — in his usual easygoing form — Burr brushed off any concerns about national Democrats spending at least $6.7 million to unseat him — a forceful play to make a red-leaning state competitive less than two months before the election.
“It’s great. I think anytime they waste money it saves my colleagues from having it go after them,” Burr smirked when asked of Democrats’ money blitz. “Am I complaining that the last [Quinnipiac] poll had me up 6? No! I’m probably in better shape than we dreamed.”
The Senate Intelligence chairman risks getting caught flat-footed against a relatively unknown opponent in North Carolina, which has become a major target for Democrats eyeing the White House, Senate and the governor’s mansion in Raleigh.
But Burr comes by his laid-back attitude honestly — quirks and all. He doesn’t wear socks, except on certain Thursdays. He’ll bring his own lunch to caucus meetings to save a few bucks on the catered food and sometimes walks around the Capitol chowing on grits.
And he drives a ramshackle convertible Volkswagen Thing in rain, sun and snow despite the inoperable roof, leaving it in areas that could not even under the most charitable definition be called a parking spot. The car is covered with bumper stickers, including one supporting conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
“The best way to describe Richard is to look at the car he drives,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime friend. “He’s a workhorse, not a show horse. If you don’t believe me go look at his car. Which is a piece of crap.”
But no matter how well-liked Burr is, he’s in a competitive race against Democrat Deborah Ross, a former state representative who has sneaked up on Burr and trails by about 3 points according to averages of recent polls. And national Democrats are going after him because Ohio has essentially been conceded to the Republicans, Florida is exceedingly expensive and they are searching for any path to the majority.
The race is viewed as an essential piece of either party’s majority: if Democrats can’t take advantage of Burr’s vulnerability, party honchos will kick themselves for leaving a winnable seat on the table. And if Republicans were to lose in North Carolina, it would presage a bad night for them on Nov. 8.
Plus, the state’s environment is rapidly deteriorating around Burr. GOP Gov. Pat McCrory appears the most vulnerable incumbent governor, Donald Trump is being badly outspent by Hillary Clinton and the GOP’s so-called bathroom law is now denying the state prized NCAA tournament events. Burr again declined to take a position on the controversial law, known as HB2, last week.
“The state is on fire,” Ross said in a telephone interview. “North Carolina has the most statewide races that are the closest in the entire country right now.”
The political landscape is threatening enough, but GOP insiders say Burr has exacerbated the problem by never deviating from his lax demeanor. Burr says this is his last political campaign ever -- but Republicans privately say it’s hard to tell how much he cares about the outcome.
“In this environment you would prefer to have all of your candidates running terrified, and no one would say that he is doing that,” said one top Republican strategist.
“He’s not working as hard as he should,” added another.
Burr attended a Senate Republican fundraiser on Sea Island, Ga., as his colleagues spent the past weekend campaigning. Burr “should have been in North Carolina,” said a third Republican strategist.
The senator himself said that national Republicans don’t understand his strategy. His aides said he did 26 events in the first three weeks of August, though at one of them he told The Associated Press that he doesn’t become a candidate until the Senate goes on recess in October.
Was that a mistake?
“Absolutely not. Has my campaign been running? Yeah it’s been running. When do I have time to go down and be a candidate? I’ve got a full-time job up here,” Burr said. “What I was trying to say was, I go out and do Senate business, don’t come up and ask me campaign questions. Because I’m not a candidate, I’m doing official business.”
The 60-year-old Burr is something of a throwback on Capitol Hill, a longtime friend of former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) who views politicking a distant second to the daily ins-and-outs of being a powerful Intel chairman. A national sales manager for a lawn equipment distributor before entering politics, Burr ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1992, but won a House seat just two years later and served there for a decade before running for the Senate in 2004.
Burr is boosted by the fact that he’s well-respected by Democrats — the biggest diss that Democratic senators can come up with is that he’s not well-known in the state. In a September Suffolk poll, Burr was unknown by 13 percent of respondents, but Ross was worse off with 45 percent of them saying they’d never heard of her. Still, he led by 3 points in that survey, and Ross has more room to grow her support.
“The more they see of her, the more they’re going to like her,” said one Democratic senator. “I don’t know the state of his campaign, I just know there’s a lot of persuadables in North Carolina.”
The most stunning sign of GOP hand-wringing is an $8.1 million ad buy reserved by the Senate Leadership Fund — more than the group is spending on races in the traditional battlegrounds of Nevada and Pennsylvania. And according to Republican officials, pro-Trump forces have reserved only $3.2 million in ads in the state, while pro-Clinton forces have reserved $21.2 million.
Republicans supporting Burr and the candidate himself, however, have about $20 million in ads scheduled to run this year, compared with about $9 million for Democrats. And Burr has a built-in money advantage, with $7 million on hand to Ross’ $2 million at the end of June, and is now up on TV.
But Burr has been hampered by another troubling statistic: Ross outraised him the past two quarters, a major accomplishment for a candidate in a first-time race and a troubling one for a longtime politician. Democrats say they have benefited from Ross’ obscurity; had former Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) or former Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) got in the race, Burr may have been startled into an overwhelming show of force early on.
But now in the midst of the sprint to November, Ross is in serious contention.
“She’s very good. She’s very sharp,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Tester of Montana. “The next seven weeks are critical, but she’s a great candidate and she’s absolutely in the mix. Seven weeks is a long time, but I think that long time helps her a lot.”
Republicans read things another way -- that they will use the next seven weeks to stir up inflammatory pieces of Ross’ record, which includes running the state’s American Civil Liberties Union, opposing a sex-offender registry and efforts to ban flag burning. GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina called her a “no-compromises ultraliberal” – and Republicans said after they are done with her, voters will figure she’s too left for the red-leaning state.
“That state is competitive. It is a must-win for us,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “We’re going to spend a lot of money pointing out the shortcomings of Ms. Ross, of which there are many, too numerous to mention for the rest of the [election]. And I know that some of our friends have stated publicly that they intend to do that.”
Wicker himself refused to concede that Burr isn’t working hard enough. And worries about Burr in Washington strategy rooms is nothing new. His first Senate campaign in 2004 was characterized by his lone ranger style as he bombed around the state, often alone, to events, Republicans recounted. By 2010 he’d done little to elevate his stature, yet cruised to reelection as part of the tea party wave with the same relaxed demeanor.
“This happens every six years,” remarked a fourth top GOP operative.
This year, though, is different. The DSCC’s commitment is a major development in the race; Burr faced essentially no attacks from outside groups in 2010. And the presidential tossup in combination with Burr’s under-the-radar stature means he’s likely to lose his seat if Clinton bests Trump.
Yet Burr is as carefree as ever, moseying through the Capitol halls alone, without aides or talking points to dispense. And since he’s not listening to campaign officials, Republicans have no other solution other than to trust that he knows what he’s doing.
“That sometimes makes the experts uneasy,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.).