Can This North Carolina Democrat Become the Next Kay Hagan?

Presidential race could boost Senate campaign of underdog Deborah Ross

Deborah Ross, seen above greeting voters during early voting for the Senate primary, faces an uphill climb against Burr. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Deborah Ross’ biggest fault? “I want to be perfect all the time,” said the North Carolina Democratic Senate nominee.  

Ross wasn't national Democrats' first choice to take on two-term Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr.  

Yet Ross, a former state House representative with low statewide name recognition, won a resounding victory in Tuesday’s four-way Democratic primary. She carried 62 percent of the vote — a hair more than two-term Burr carried in his four-way GOP primary.  

Ross was already running a general election campaign, but she now embarks on an uphill battle for unaffiliated voters in a deeply purple state, where the governor’s race is the marquee statewide contest and the presidential battle will go a long way toward determining turnout.  

Sitting at Raleigh’s Cupcake Shoppe, just blocks from her house one early morning, Ross — already a high-energy person — reluctantly ordered a regular iced latte after hearing that the establishment wasn’t serving decaf. She'd been up for hours and already had her caffeine. The phrase she repeatedly used to describe herself was “a both-and kind of person.”  

Ross is self-assured and persuasive, and she enunciates with precision. “I understand that you’ve got to raise money. I’m not afraid of money,” Ross said. Her campaign’s goal is to raise at least $10 million. So far, it’s raised more than $1 million in five months, outpacing former Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’s 2008 fundraising, but falling short of the pace set by many of this year's more competitive Democratic recruits. Burr ended the final quarter of 2015 with more than $5 million in the bank.  

Ross’ husband and campaign staff have been urging her to practice yoga several times a week to relax. After all, much of the final election outcome this year is out of her hands.  

“We are a state that — maybe more so than others — the fate of our politicians is just completely determined by the national political climate,” said Tom Jensen, the director of Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm. President Barack Obama narrowly won the state in 2008 and narrowly lost it in 2012. The state's 2014 Senate race — where Hagan lost and GOP Sen. Thom Tillis won — was one of the closest in the country.  

Democrats hope that having Donald Trump, who won 40 percent in North Carolina’s GOP primary, or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who came in second, at the top of the GOP ticket will put North Carolina in play at the presidential level, which would boost Ross’s ground game. “I consider it a 50-50 state where national trends and significant turnout can make a difference,” she said.  

UNITED STATES - March 10 - Debroah Ross, a former Democratic member of the North Carolina General Assembly, greets supporters before casting her vote for herself as she runs for the U.S. Senate race against Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., at the Chavis Community Center, in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 10, 2016. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call) The incumbent Burr will play up his Intelligence Committee chairmanship to make it a national security election, but he’s far from beloved back in North Carolina. “He’s had low favorables for somebody that’s been in office as long as he has,” said North Carolina Republican Carter Wrenn, the longtime campaign consultant to the late Sen. Jesse Helms.  

“But it’s not like with some of the presidential candidates where [independent voters are] saying, ‘Not only do I not like him, I dislike him.’ It’s just, you know, part of them like him and part of them are, ‘Oh I don’t know.’ That’s a problem for Burr, but not a huge one,” Wrenn added.  

Democrats represent about 40 percent of registered voters in the state, which has been flooded with social moderates from other regions of the country, while Republican and unaffiliated voters make up another 30 percent each.  

But voter registration isn’t necessarily indicative of voter behavior. “North Carolina has a rich history of ticket-splitting,” said North Carolina Republican Paul Shumaker, a consultant for both Burr and Tillis. The exception to that, Shumaker said, was in 2008 when national Republicans underestimated Obama’s dramatic turnout game and Hagan won by 8 points.  

"The way I see it is that Hillary Clinton would have to be winning North Carolina by something in the 5-10 point range for Richard Burr to manage to lose,” Jensen, the Democratic pollster, said. He gives Democrats a 25 percent chance of defeating Burr. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call rates the seat Leans Republican .  

How did Democrats settle on Ross? After Hagan passed on the race , a number of other high-profile names, such as state Treasurer Janet Cowell, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and former UNC President Tom Ross, took their names out of consideration, too.  

EMILY’s List sought her out, and helped get her campaign off the ground from her kitchen table. “If there wasn’t an EMILY’s List, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Ross said. The group waited until after Ross’ first fundraising quarter, during which she raised $586,000 to back her, after which the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee followed suit .  

UNITED STATES - March 10 - Debroah Ross, a former Democratic member of the North Carolina General Assembly, greets supporters after casting her vote for herself as she runs for the U.S. Senate race against Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., at the Chavis Community Center, in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 10, 2016. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Ross wasn't Democrats' first choice to take on Burr. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Born in Philadelphia, Ross grew up in Connecticut and came to the Tar Heel State to attend law school at the University of North Carolina. Before serving in the General Assembly for 10 years she was state director for the American Civil Liberties Union, and after leaving the legislature, she became legal counsel to the Triangle region’s transit agency. Her rise from the state legislature inspires natural comparisons to Hagan, who served in the state Senate for 10 years before running for the U.S. Senate.  

No one thought Hagan could upset GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2008, Jensen recalled. What both Hagan in 2008 and Burr in 2004 and 2010 had on their sides were favorable political climates, he said.  

In Washington, when Democrats talk about the party’s recruitment successes this cycle, Ross usually falls near the bottom of the list, and North Carolina Democrats at first expressed concerns that Ross might be too liberal for a general election.  

Within minutes of her Tuesday night primary victory, the National Republican Senatorial Committee unleashed attacks on her record at the ACLU.  

But Democrats in the state are now high on Ross and operatives from both parties suggest Hagan would have been a weaker candidate because of her high negatives after the 2014 race.  

“This would shock the Washington political establishment, but I think Richard would have been a lot better off with Kay Hagan running against him,” Wrenn said. Ross is well-regarded on both sides of aisle for her smarts and her passion. “I like her spunkiness,” said Wrenn. “I mean she’s not afraid of anything.”  

Jensen thinks that if the winds blow in Democrats’ favor, Ross, who he said has “Elizabeth Warren qualities,” is well positioned to take advantage.  

For both campaigns, charting a course in an uncertain national climate, the race will come down to the unaffiliated voters, whose influx from out of state has contributed to the state’s purple hue.  

“If you’re in an area that falls under the ‘swing universe’ you’d better bring an A-game to the table regardless of who the nominee is and regardless of which party you come from,” Shumaker said. “That’s this state.”  


North Carolina, Explained

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