On the first day of early voting in North Carolina, the Senate race got a little more crowded. For the first time, Democrat Deborah Ross launched a TV ad that tied incumbent Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr to Donald Trump.
Facing a barrage of attacks over her past criticism of a sex offender registry, Ross is trying to use the Republican presidential nominee to undercut the GOP’s main attack against her.
“Richard Burr puts politics ahead of us. He’s exploiting victims of sexual assault to falsely attack Deborah Ross,” the narrator says in the ad, shared first with Roll Call, that hits some TV stations Thursday night before launching statewide Friday.
“But Burr has taken a post as a top adviser to Donald Trump,” the narrator continues. Hours before the revelation of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording in which Trump bragged about groping and kissing women, Burr was announced as a member of Trump’s national security advisory council.
The ad goes on to play clips of the 2005 video, then cuts to footage of Burr saying he still supports the GOP nominee.
As North Carolina’s Senate race tightened this summer, Republicans eagerly talked up the hits to come against Ross, based on her tenure as state director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
At the center of that opposition research is a 1995 memo that Ross wrote as the organization’s executive director that raised concerns about legislation creating the sex offender registry.
The Burr campaign began attacking Ross on the issue in late September. “She wants to protect sexual predators over victims,” Marine Sgt. Kelly Lowe says in Burr’s first ad on the subject. The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a thematically similar attack ad based on Ross’ ACLU record, specifically pointing to a 1990s case in which she sought leniency for a teen convicted of sexual assault.
In last week’s debate, Ross, a former state representative, tried to explain why she questioned the legislation.
“When this bill was being considered, like a good lobbyist, lawyer, legislator, you have to look at the implications of the bill,” Ross said. “Ultimately, the bill is working, the law is working. Like I said, I voted 18 times to strengthen and update it and raising issues isn’t the same thing as opposing a bill.”
Throughout the past few weeks, the GOP attacks based on her ACLU record have since broadened beyond sex offenses. The Senate Leadership Fund accused her of defending flag burning. Subsequent ads from the Burr campaign went after her record as a lawyer and also accused Ross of supporting flag burning.
But the sex offender registry remains the Burr campaign’s main attack, said Burr campaign pollster Glen Bolger.
Republicans contend that their hits on Ross are working, pointing to the last eight public polls that have showed Burr leading or tied. Ross last led in a poll conducted about the same time the Burr campaign first aired an attack on the registry.
At the presidential level, Hillary Clinton has led every public poll in North Carolina since late September. With the release of the “Access Hollywood” video and Trump’s subsequent debate performances, more Democratic Senate candidates are trying to compare their GOP opponents to Trump in paid messaging. That wasn’t the case before the video.
Democrats see this line of attack as being particularly potent in North Carolina because it plays into their existing attack on Burr — that he’s a longtime creature of Washington who makes politically motivated decisions — and because it could possibly mitigate Burr’s attacks on Ross.
“Sen. Burr is trying to attack Deborah’s strong record of standing up for women and survivors while he is campaigning for Donald Trump, a self-admitted sexual predator — and North Carolina voters aren’t going to be fooled,” said Helen Hare, a senior communications adviser for the Ross campaign.
But Republicans are quick to point out that Burr condemned Trump’s 2005 remarks about women and say the comparison between the senator and the GOP nominee aren’t fair.
“As much as everyone likes to make it about Trump, at the end of the day, these are Deborah Ross’ actions. That is the core of her being,” one national GOP operative said.
Republicans maintain that the line of attack against Ross is much more direct, while linking Burr to allegations against Trump is murkier.
“In focus groups and polls, most people said that a candidate’s position on Trump makes no difference to their vote,” Bolger said. “They see [Trump] as such an unusual and singular force from out of left field. Just because Donald Trump does stuff doesn’t mean it applies to down-ballot Republicans.”
There’s still time, though, for Trump to hurt both Burr and incumbent GOP Gov. Pat McCrory (locked in a tight race against Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper).
“We can’t say definitively that Hillary strengthening or Trump weakening has affected McCrory or Burr, but you have to think at some point it probably will,” said Carter Wrenn, a Republican consultant in North Carolina.
“It could be that people are going to look at each race individually or it could be a row of dominoes falling.“