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How Much Trouble Is Richard Burr in?

How vulnerable is Burr? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr apparently is easy to underestimate.  

The former Wake Forest football defensive back (he played at 6’1’’, 200 pounds as a sophomore in 1975, according to the university’s Athletic Media Relations Department) served five terms in the House and is now in his second term in the Senate.  He is the Tar Heel State’s senior senator and, more importantly, chairs the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, a particularly meaningful position given terrorist threats to the United States. But Burr, who lost or dropped a couple of bids to join his party’s Senate leadership, has never been as high-profile or grandiloquent as some of his Senate colleagues. And each time he runs in a competitive contest, observers tend to focus on his weaknesses, not his strengths.  

“In his home state,” wrote The New Republic in the summer of 2010, a little more than two months before he was re-elected to a second term, “Burr is anything but a star.” The magazine went on to describe him as “a blank slate” and assert his poll numbers were “uncomfortably low because voters don’t really know who he is.”  

But if Burr isn’t flashy, he has a real interest in public policy, and he has plenty of political savvy. I will never underestimate him — as I did a number of years ago.  

Burr’s House seat moved around a bit but always was anchored around Winston-Salem and included a string of counties along the Virginia border. He lost his first bid for Congress, to incumbent Democrat Stephen Neal in 1992, and his open-seat victory two years later was competitive. But after that, he didn’t need to break a sweat running for re-election.  

Burr seemed like something of an underdog when he first ran for Senate in 2004. His Democratic opponent was Erskine Bowles, a businessman who had served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and who had lost a Senate race narrowly two years earlier to Elizabeth Dole.  

Bowles had a moderate image and some fundraising muscle, and polling at the beginning of 2004 showed him leading Burr by a handful of points.  

My colleague Nathan L. Gonzales and I interviewed Burr on July 20, 2004, about three-and-a-half months before the election. The congressman gave me some mumbo jumbo about having a strategy and a plan he wouldn’t share with us — other than, according to our notes, he was going to hand out cards with referee signals on them to mothers at high school football games.  

Not surprisingly, I concluded he did not have much of a plan after all, though we kept the Senate race as a tossup throughout 2004 because of the state’s fundamentals.  

In fact, Burr closed on Bowles in the final months, eventually defeating his Democratic opponent by 5 points, 52 percent to 47 percent.  

Six years later, he faced four-term Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, another candidate in a long list of statewide elected officials who didn’t understand that their performance in a down-ballot statewide office said nothing about their appeal in a Senate contest.  

Burr’s early poll numbers in that race were better than they had been in 2004. He drew in the mid-40s in a series of ballot tests in 2009, and while his numbers strengthened during much of 2010, polling of dubious quality from Public Policy Polling and Lake Research Partners , two Democratic polling firms, showed the race still close as late as the summer of 2010.  

Burr beat Marshall by about a dozen points, 55 percent to 43 percent, drawing a higher percentage of the total Senate vote in the state than anyone since Democrat Robert Morgan in the Watergate election year of 1974.  

There is no doubt North Carolina has changed politically over the past four-and-a-half decades. A one-party Democratic bastion until the early 1970s, the state has gone for the Republican presidential nominee each time since 1980, except for 2008, when it went narrowly for Barack Obama. While Mitt Romney carried it by just more than 2 points in 2012, it was the second closest state (after Florida) in the country.  

This cycle, Burr’s early poll numbers appear a bit stronger than in the past. His job approval sits in the low- to mid-30s and is about equal to his disapproval numbers, and a recent Elon University poll showed Burr and Democratic former Sen. Kay Hagan, who lost a squeaker in 2014, running even. But three early Public Policy Polling polls found the Republican holding leads in the 6- to 12-point range.  

The list of potential Democratic challengers to Burr should not be particularly frightening to Tar Heel Republicans. It includes Hagan, former members of Congress and a number of ambitious state legislators and local elected officials.  

But if Republicans nominate a mainstream presidential candidate and the national political environment is relatively neutral, candidate quality will grow in importance. And that probably would benefit Burr, who looks and sounds like central casting’s idea of a U.S. senator.  

The nature of North Carolina politics these days is reason enough to watch the North Carolina Senate race now, and I certainly understand why handicappers rate Burr’s seat as merely leaning toward the GOP. But count me as skeptical that Burr will be in very much trouble when Labor Day 2016 rolls around.  

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