The Trump Effect on the Senate, Part 6: North Carolina

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The Senate race in North Carolina is one of those races currently under the radar that changed somewhat from the beginning.  Republican incumbent Richard Burr, at first glance, would seem like a fairly safe bet for reelection.  The Democratic Party had difficulty recruiting a top tier candidate.  They would have preferred former Senator Kay Hagan to take on Burr, but she backed out and showed no interest.  They then moved to plan B- state representative Duane Hall or Anthony Foxx, the current Transportation Secretary in the Obama administration, but they too did not bite.

In the interim, a little known mayor of Spring Lake, Chris Rey, entered the race.  Plan C finally took the bait and former North Carolina house majority whip Deborah Ross entered the race and received the backing of the DSCC, Harry Reid and several liberal and feminist groups.

In the GOP primary, Burr faced Greg Brannon who ran and lost to Thom Tillis in the 2014 Republican senatorial primary.  In the end, Burr won with over 60% of the vote while Ross won her primary on the Democratic side.  The senatorial primary was held the same day as the GOP presidential primary in North Carolina.

Ted Cruz lost that election to Donald Trump by less than 40,000 votes of over 1 million cast.  Like Missouri in the last installment of this series, although he won, there was not overwhelming enthusiasm for Trump.  According to the CNN exit poll, a very large swath of the GOP electorate- 79%- consider themselves very or somewhat conservative.  Cruz performed best with the very conservative voters and close to Trump with the somewhat conservative ones.

As in other states, people vote as they do because a candidate shares their values.  That is the largest segment of the electorate when asked for the top candidate quality.  And as in other states, Ted Cruz thumped Trump in this category.

What does it all mean for Richard Burr?  Burr at the North Carolina GOP convention called for unity behind Trump being the inevitable GOP presidential nominee.  However, when asked, he stated he would be more concentrated on his own reelection rather than appearing with Trump on the campaign trail.  He later backtracked somewhat and said he would welcome Trump to the state and possibly appear with him.  Considering the fact that Burr in January said he would rather vote for Sanders rather than Ted Cruz for President, it says a lot about Burr.  So much for unity…

Burr does not have particularly high approval ratings in the state with a standing at 29% approval and 40% disapproval.  He is a rather low-key Senator for someone who has been in office since 2005.  Before that, he served six terms in the House.  He hasn’t broken 60% of the vote in his two previous Senate elections.  His 2004 election came in a year Bush won the presidency and 2010 was a midterm election and favorable to Republicans.  This is an open presidential election year in a politically toxic year against a decent, if not formidable opponent.

For her part, Ross is trying her utmost to pin Trump to Burr by highlighting his past comments.  Clinton’s opposition research arm- American Bridge- is cooperating in those efforts.

A tangential issue being played by the Democrats involves something Burr had no part in- their HB2 transgender bathroom law.  The Left has been attacking Burr for his stance which basically mirrors the stance of most North Carolinians.  Although they generally support the law, they worry about the effects on their economy.  Burr has further criticized the process rather than the actual content of the law.  But, this is an overblown issue and more of one outside North Carolina apparently.  Likewise with the GOP position not to entertain hearings on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

That issue is also being played up in the state as well as others like Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire.  However, in most polls consideration of Supreme Court nominees ranks very low on the list of issues voters worry about.

Burr certainly faces headwinds.  He was never a prolific fundraiser and many considered him a complacent campaigner at times.  He can likely expect the support from some outside groups, but he will have to up the ante with campaigning.  Ross has challenged him to a debate or series of debates and those requests have been met with silence.

In polling thus far since January, Burr leads by an average 6.5% which seems about right.  He started off, however, with an 11 point lead.  Although the campaign has not hit high gear yet,  Ross obviously closed the gap after receiving a post-primary bump in the polls.  However, that bump has stalled.

With regards to presidential polling in North Carolina, Trump trails Clinton by an average of 1.6 points.  Considering that Republican candidates win the state by an average of seven points dating to 2000, this is too close for comfort.

Taken together with Burr’s past regarding fundraising/campaigning, his apparent embrace of Trump and Trump’s weaknesses in the state, this is a race that should have been no problem in defeating the Democratic Party’s Plan C.  The last time North Carolina split the ticket in a senatorial race in a presidential election year was 1968 when the state voted for Nixon and Democratic Senator Sam Ervin.  If Burr survives, he better hope that Trump does better than expected in North Carolina.