Rep. Richard Burr (R), backed by a virtual who’s who of Tar Heel State Republican politicos spanning the last 30 years, took the first step toward formally entering the North Carolina Senate race Tuesday.
In announcing the formation of the exploratory campaign, Burr revealed that former Sens. Jesse Helms, Jim Broyhill and Lauch Faircloth, as well as former Govs. Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin, will serve as co-chairmen for his committee.
“I am honored that these outstanding statesmen have agreed to assist me as I go through the process of making a determination about whether to run for Senate in 2004,” Burr said. He is widely expected to make his candidacy official later in the year.
Burr is also recognized as the favored candidate of both the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, although neither group has formally backed his bid.
“He is a very strong candidate,” said NSRC Communications Director Dan Allen. “He has strong support across the state and broad appeal.”
Rep. Walter Jones Jr. and 2002 Senate candidate Jim Snyder are also potential GOP candidates but may hesitate given the political power behind Burr.
It remains unclear whether Burr will face Sen. John Edwards (D), who is pursuing a presidential race, or a replacement Democratic candidate such as 2002 nominee Erskine Bowles, Rep. Bobby Etheridge or state Treasurer Richard Moore.
Democrats wasted little time going on the offensive.
“We welcome Congressman Burr to the race,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Andy Grossman.
“We look forward to listening to him explain his radical views to North Carolina voters,” Grossman added, alleging that Burr had “voted to privatize Social Security and to cut school construction money.”
Under North Carolina law, Edwards can simultaneously run for national office and re-election to the Senate seat he won in 1998, but on a practical level a dual race may become difficult. In order to win the presidential primary nomination, Edwards is likely to shift to his ideological left, which might not play well in conservative-minded North Carolina.
Burr’s decision to publicly declare his intention to run this early in the cycle may be aimed at forcing Edwards to choose between the presidential and Senate bids sooner than the incumbent would like.
In an independent poll taken last fall, Edwards led Burr 45 percent to 30 percent.
Burr was expected to run for the 2002 open seat vacated Helms but bowed out in deference to now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R). He was also mentioned as a potential candidate against Gov. Mike Easley (D) in 2004.
Burr has held the 5th district since 1994, when he won an open-seat race following the retirement of Rep. Steve Neal (D), who had defeated Burr two years before. Burr’s pledge to serve only five terms in the House is up in 2004.
Perhaps Burr’s strongest appeal as a candidate is his fundraising prowess. He ended 2002 with $1.7 million in his campaign account, $300,000 more than Edwards had on hand at the end of the year. Jones closed 2002 with $345,000 in his coffers; Snyder had a little over $400 remaining from his 2002 race.
“[Burr] is doing what he needs to do to position himself as we head into the 2004 cycle,” Allen said.