For much of this summer, North Carolina has been Democrats’ Colorado. Looking toward 2016, Democrats have a shot at unseating the incumbent senator but no candidate. That may be about to change.
Former state Rep. Deborah Ross, a progressive Democrat from Raleigh, North Carolina's largest media market, is nearing a decision about challenging Sen. Richard M. Burr. Several other potential candidates are in talks with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Ross confirmed to CQ Roll Call Friday that she was in Washington this week and met with the DSCC. But although she said she's getting a lot of encouragement to run, she told CQ Roll Call it's a "big step," and said she isn't quite there yet.
"I'm still working on it," said Ross, currently general counsel to Triangle Transit, of her decision-making process, before adding, "Clearly this cannot go on forever."
Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey, an Army veteran, has also been making calls in the state and was meeting with the DSCC for the second time Friday, a source in the state with knowledge of his plans said. Media consultant Bill Fletcher, whose firm is working with Rey, expects him to make a decision in two weeks.
Rey's campaign website , originally set up to support his mayoral election, now features the quote: "Working hard to make the quality of life better for all North Carolina citizens," and he tweeted Friday morning with the hashtag, "#GetReadyTeamRey."
State Sen. Joel Ford, the former chairman of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, told CQ Roll Call Friday he hasn’t spoken publicly about his consideration of the race. He said he’s still in “fact-gathering mode.”
“I didn’t go looking for this,” he said. “They called me, I didn’t call them,” he said of the DSCC’s efforts to recruit him.
State Rep. Duane Hall has also been in touch with the DSCC, having met with them in Washington three weeks ago. He told CQ Roll Call he's set a Labor Day deadline for himself to make a decision about running.
Former Rep. Heath Shuler, a conservative Democrat who represented the 11th District in the Western part of the state, had been mentioned as a recruit given his previous service. But he hasn't been making calls in the state lately and is unlikely to run, a Democratic operative in North Carolina said.
Shuler left Congress in 2013 and is currently the senior vice president for government affairs at Duke Energy. He could not be reached for comment Friday, but said through a Duke Energy spokesman, “I am enjoying my work at Duke Energy, a great company, and that is my focus.”
Democrats had a contingency plan — or several plans — in the event that former Sen. Kay Hagan declined to challenge Burr. But after Hagan took herself out of the running , Tar Heel Democrats’ biggest-name recruits, state Treasurer Janet Cowell and Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, also bowed out.
That's created an opening for candidates who haven't held statewide office.
“I was reminded,” Ford said, “that no one knew who Hagan was” when she first ran. Hagan was a state senator when she entered the 2008 U.S. Senate race.
Democrats must win 5 seats to win control of the Senate, and right now, North Carolina is one of the few states where they don't already have a candidate in the race. (In New Hampshire, Democrats are waiting on Gov. Maggie Hassan.)
"He's the best retail politician in the state," said North Carolina Democratic consultant Brad Crone, underscoring the importance of finding a candidate that appeals to voters in a general election. "He has an extensive network that goes beyond the Republican party apparatus," he added.
Ford calls himself a pro-business, moderate Democrat. He's the vice chair of NC Main Street Democrats, a legislative caucus within the General Assembly. And now that he says he's “entertaining” a bid, he believes he could be in a stronger position to run as a Democrat in a general election than Ross, who's known for her progressivism.
"Collectively, we have to communicate a message that won’t scare away the base and will appeal to unaffiliated voters," he said, lamenting the fact that in the past two elections Democrats have lost fellow Democrats and unaffiliated voters to the GOP. Crone raised the same question. "Ross will energize the base vote, but can she win in a general election?" For her part, Ross pointed to the shifting demographics of the state — in particular the influx of younger, more diverse voters and the growth of urban areas — that she said is making North Carolina more moderate.
"I wouldn't run if I didn't think I could win," Ross told CQ Roll Call.
And what about Rey, who governs a town of 13,000 people near Fort Bragg?
"I'd describe Rey as progressive," Fletcher said of his client. But, he stressed, Rey has "enormous credibility" in the business and military communities.
Hall also said he sees himself in the more progressive wing of the party, calling out Burr for not supporting increases in the federal minimum wage.
Regardless of who their candidate is, Democrats take heart from 2008, when President Barack Obama carried the state and Hagan, who didn't get in the race until October 2007, unseated former Sen. Elizabeth Dole by more than 8 points.
"There is still plenty of time to get a top notch candidate in North Carolina who can and will beat Richard Burr," DSCC Press Secretary Sadie Weiner said.
Democrats are banking on a presidential year boosting their nominee. "This is exactly the turnout that if you’re Burr you don’t want," a Democratic operative in the state said. Still, the operative cautioned, it comes down to the national mood.
"If [Hillary Rodham] Clinton is not aggressive and competitive in North Carolina, and if voters nationally believe [Jeb] Bush is going to be the next president 30 to 40 days before the election, Burr is going to get elected," he added.