Republicans across the country are starting worry about Richard Burr. For most of the cycle, GOP insiders seemed to think that he would be alright. He had a large war chest and has proven to be hard campaigner with few high negatives. Now, though, Donald Trump threatens to bring everyone down with him.
North Carolina is starting to look like a “perfect storm,” as one conservative publication called it. Not only is Trump in trouble in the state, but Governor Pat McCrory is also struggling. He faces a strong opponent in Attorney Roy Cooper and has found himself on the wrong side of a number of polarizing issues, including HB2. Between the so-called “bathroom bill” and recent court decisions about redistricting and voting rights, the Democratic base is energized.
Burr is not a strong personality and is relatively undefined in the state despite more than 20 years in Washington. He’ll need to separate himself from the pack somehow to fend off Deborah Ross, who has turned out to be a much stronger candidate than many people expected. She’s out-raised Burr for two quarters in a row and a recent poll has her leading by two.
Two years ago, the US Senate race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis had been raging for months by this point in the cycle. This year, Burr and his allied third-party groups are just starting to run ads. They’re betting that people will be tuning in late to the Senate race and they will start talking to them when they do. That may be true, but they’ve been paying attention to the presidential contest for more than a year and the election is looking to be more about the GOP nominee, bathrooms, and voting rights than any of the issues Burr would like to talk about.
To jolt the conversation, expect Burr to try scare tactics. He’s chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and he can tell us a lot about ISIS infiltration and terrorist operations that threaten our safety. It’s also what Trump may be talking about going down the stretch. Besides, it worked in 2014. Thom Tillis snatched victory from Kay Hagan when ISIS and ebola briefly threatened to end humanity.
The fall campaign is just beginning and the environment is still fluid. Trump is just starting to run his first general election ads. While McCrory and Cooper have been slugging for a while, neither Ross nor Burr has spent substantial money. The electorate hasn’t tuned in completely yet, aside from watching the Trump show, which is losing ratings fast.
To win, Republicans like Burr will likely need to get out of Trump’s shadow. They will need to run a parallel campaign that strikes a balance between separating themselves from the presidential campaign without alienating the base that made Trump the nominee. It’s a tough balance and if Trump alienates enough voters to suppress the GOP electorate, close races in states like North Carolina will probably break Democratic. Still, we’ve got another few weeks before the situation baked in.
Thomas Mills is the Founder and Publisher of PoliticsNC.com