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Democrats Still Seek Strong Challenger to Burr in North Carolina

At least one Democrat has entered the race against Burr, but there will be more to follow. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With the Democratic primary in North Carolina less than six months away, the party still isn't united behind a candidate to try to knock off GOP Sen. Richard Burr. And some Democrats are concerned that time is running out.  

"I don’t see Burr as being vulnerable in the state, six months before my primary, 60 days before my filing deadline," North Carolina Democratic consultant Brad Crone said.  

"And part of that is that Democrats are so focused on the governor's race," Crone added. "If there’s a prize to be won in the state, I think they’d much rather it be the governor’s race," in which incumbent Pat McCrory is seen as vulnerable and Democrats have put up a competitive candidate.  

In a Public Policy Polling poll  released last week, no hypothetical Democrat comes close to challenging Burr, who has a 29 percent approval rating. At the same time, McCrory holds only a small lead over Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, but carries a disapproval rating of of 47 percent.  

It could be that it's just too early for a generic undefined Democrat to register in the Senate polls.  

Democrats in the state believe that former state Rep. Deborah Ross, who resigned from her job as general counsel to the Research Triangle's transportation agency last week, will make an announcement soon. A progressive former state legislator, she's expected to enthuse the base and raise money in a way that other potential candidates who have expressed interest cannot.  

There is one Democrat already in the race, and others expected to get in soon. Chris Rey, the mayor of Spring Lake, a town of 13,000 outside Fort Bragg, announced his candidacy on Sept. 21. The Iraq War veteran trails all other potential Democratic challengers in the PPP poll, although most Democrats are only separated by a point or two.  

"Being a substantive female from the largest media market in the state" will give Ross the advantage in the primary, one North Carolina Democratic consultant said.  

"In a short turnaround primary, which is essentially five months from today, it will be very difficult for some of these other folks to make a serious challenge," he added.  

Ross' resignation was effective Oct. 2, but she's resisted establishing a timetable for her decision-making process. "It's better to be deliberate on the front end than make an impulse decision," Ross told CQ Roll Call in late August.  

Especially with presidential candidates pushing up the cost of media buys in the state, the same Democratic consultant said that Ross' appeal to the liberal donor base will be crucial. Her challenge, he said, "is to raise enough money to get those [outside] groups confident that there’s going to be a real competitive election." Forty percent of North Carolina voters disapprove of Burr in the PPP poll, which national Democrats believe gives them an opening in this Lean Republican  contest.  

But some Democrats are worried that if Ross is the nominee, she'll be too liberal to make the contest competitive. In PPP's hypothetical matchup, Ross pulls 34 percent to Burr's 45 percent. Ross could not be reached for comment last week.  

"We are a purple state," said another North Carolina Democrat. "You cannot win unless you get that moderate independent voter." Right now, the leading Democrat in the hypothetical matchups is former Rep. Heath Shuler, who trails Burr by just 5 points. A former NFL quarterback who represented the 11th District for three terms, Shuler enjoys higher name recognition than the other potential Democratic candidates but still only registers at about 35 percent.  

Democrats in the state don't expect Shuler, now senior vice president for government affairs at Duke Energy, to mount a bid. “I am enjoying my work at Duke Energy, a great company, and that is my focus," he told CQ Roll Call via a spokesman in August.  

The North Carolina General Assembly wrapped its session in the wee hours of the morning on Sept. 30, which frees up state legislators mulling a bid to give greater thought to their political ambitions.  

State Sen. Joel Ford, the former chairman of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, told CQ Roll Call on Sept. 30 that he's still weighing a challenge to Burr, and now that the session is over he'll have more time to make his decision.  

But not too much time. "It's going to have to be soon," Ford said, now that the state's primaries have been moved up to March 15 . That means the filing period now begins on Dec. 1.  

Ford was not tested in the PPP poll.  

State Rep. Duane Hall trailed Burr, 45 percent to 35 percent, and although Democrats in the state are dubious that he'll actually run, he told CQ Roll Call on Friday, "I am still considering it, though it's getting late." He expects to make a decision in the next 10 days.  

Now that the legislative session has concluded, he'll be making calls to gauge support, including to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "They haven't made a decision yet," Hall said.  

Democrats have been without a top challenger since former Sen. Kay Hagan passed on the race this summer, but they're optimistic that there's still time for someone who hasn't held statewide or federal office to get in the race and defeat Burr in a presidential year.  

"After two decades in Washington, North Carolinians still can’t point to a single thing Senator Burr has done for their state," said Justin Barasky, DSCC communications director.  

Democrats must net five seats to win control of the Senate. On Monday, they finally landed the candidate they'd been waiting on in New Hampshire when Gov. Maggie Hassan entered the race  against Sen. Kelly Ayotte.  

For Republicans looking to defend and expand their Senate majority, recruitment in Colorado has proved to be the most troublesome.  

Related:

N.C. Is Lukewarm on Burr, But Lukewarm Might Be Enough 
Democrats Prep North Carolina Contingency Plan
Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016

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