Amid growing private and public concerns among Republicans about the health of Rep. Richard Burr’s North Carolina Senate campaign, the five-term lawmaker is maintaining a cool confidence in his ability to execute what he describes as a carefully crafted plan to win in November.
While GOP operatives maintain that Burr can still beat Erskine Bowles, many have privately expressed frustration about the Democrat’s ability to outshine the Congressman.
They grumble that Burr lacks a consistent message, is micro-managing the day-to-day operations of the race and has virtually relinquished the media spotlight to Bowles, who has seemed to bask in it.
“Richard is running his own race on his own timetable right now,” said one GOP operative.
Burr’s response to his critics is simple: He has a plan, he’s sticking to it and voters, not headlines, will determine who wins in November.
“Is he winning the media war? Yeah,” Burr admitted in an interview last week while he was in Washington to attend House Intelligence Committee hearings. “Is he outworking me? I don’t think so.”
Burr attributes some of the disparity in media coverage to a difference in style between the candidates and their campaigns.
“I’ve won before, and I know what works for me,” he said, in a not-so-veiled jab at Bowles’ failed run for Senate in 2002.
Burr said that in due time he too will engage in the more retail aspects of campaigning, such as bus tours and rallies — the same events that are currently boosting Bowles’ local media coverage — just not in the month of August.
“I don’t mean this to sound cocky or arrogant in any way, but we’re going to do it on our time frame,” Burr said.
Burr talks in very general terms about a multi-phase strategic plan that he helped craft and which keeps the campaign running on a specific timetable. Even though public polling has consistently shown Bowles leading by 8 to 10 points, Burr said he is confident that his plan is on target.
“The one thing that I would [use to] sum up the campaign to date is we have been extremely disciplined,” Burr said. “To make sure that we were one, prepared, and two, ready to go to every phase of what we had drawn up. I think we’ve been very disciplined to stay on that timeline and I think we’ll be very disciplined to stay on that message.”
As a model, Burr points to the 2002 Georgia Senate race between then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R) and then-Sen. Max Cleland (D).
Chambliss, one of Burr’s closest friends, was considered the underdog virtually throughout the campaign, but Burr believes that Chambliss won in the end because he tailored his strategy to the state’s voters and he knew what worked.
“Saxby ran Saxby’s campaign,” Burr said. “And I think that made him successful.”
But that same discipline has also led to charges that Burr is too heavily involved with the running of the campaign. That concern, and other concerns about Burr’s position in the race, were aired by some local Republicans in a story published Friday by The Charlotte Observer.
While Burr acknowledges that his disciplined approach has “frustrated a lot of people,” he added that no one has expressed dissatisfaction about the way things are going.
“Do I ask questions where some candidates don’t ask? Sure,” he said. “But it’s because I insist that that discipline be there. It’s the way this office is run. It’s the way I run my life.”
He claims that based on his schedule alone, it would be impossible for him to be micro-managing the affairs of his campaign.
“I live out of the trunk of my car,” said Burr, who regularly drives alone to and from campaign events.
But while Bowles, who lost to now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) by 9 points in 2002, has received mostly positive reviews throughout the campaign, Burr has generated mixed reviews. Most recently, Democrats seized on Burr’s comment that “the president bought us 14 months where every terrorist has been focused on killing Americans in Iraq,” as he suggested a different rationale for the Iraq invasion.
Front and center in the media war has been the federal tobacco buyout bill, which was passed by the Senate last month.
While Burr made some noise when the measure cleared the House, Bowles seized control of the story last month, touting letters from Democrats in Washington that praised his role in getting the measure passed. He even rolled out a radio ad focused solely on taking credit for helping get the bill through.
“It also doesn’t seem appropriate to me to claim victory on the tobacco issue when there’s not a bill to sign into law,” he said.
The larger focus, he said, is on what benefits his campaign in the long run and not on how many headlines he can grab.
“I’ve never believed that any news that you get is all good news,” Burr said. “The question is, are you making progress? We’re focused not on how many articles are written. We’re focused on whether the message that we’re trying to send out is in fact getting out there.”
Still, Burr hinted at some frustration in the lack of coverage of his events.
“Though I may be baffled at how I can go to a nonprofit organization, a community-action agency, and the media would rather go to a manufacturing plant versus something that plays a much bigger role in the community,” Burr said. “But that’s not for me to try to manipulate where the media would want to cover.”
Burr’s discipline has also aided his fundraising — the one aspect of the campaign that no one is criticizing.
As of June 30, Burr had $6.6 million in the bank. He began airing a new television ad last week and it is likely, Burr said, that he will remain up on TV through Election Day.
As it stands now, Burr estimates that he and Bowles are currently separated by roughly 8 percentage points. Even though he shares little detail about the specifics of his campaign plan, his confident demeanor signals that it’s right where he wants to be.
“That’s much better than I would have dreamed in early August, based upon a year ago when we sat down and tried to sort of map out a strategy as to where we would be at any given time,” he said.
Burr, who trails Bowles by about 20 points in name identification, also notes that he is still introducing himself and defining himself to voters.
“I think we have a lifetime left in this campaign to begin to sort of roll out the theme of the campaign and where I think the potential differences are between the two candidates,” Burr said.
And in the House …
In the meantime, Republicans in a pair of North Carolina districts will hold runoff elections Tuesday, paving the way for two new Tar Heel State Members to be elected in November.
The runoff will also bring an end to what are arguably the nastiest and the lowest-profile open-seat contests of this cycle.
In the 5th district race to succeed Burr, the contest between Winston-Salem City Councilman Vernon Robinson and state Sen. Virginia Foxx has continued to live up to its nasty reputation.
Foxx released a poll late last month that showed her well positioned in the runoff. Since the primary, she has been endorsed by at least three candidates from the first round of balloting.
Meanwhile, Robinson — the top vote-getter in the crowded July 20 primary, has continued to run what many observers have called a negative smear campaign. He was endorsed by Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) last week.
Robinson has made unsubstantiated claims against Foxx, accusing her of supporting abortion rights and a gay agenda, among other things.
The district is solidly Republican and whoever wins the runoff should — barring a backlash from voters — advance to Congress in the general election.
Meanwhile, in the 10th district, the race between state Rep. Patrick McHenry and Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman has also gotten nastier in the runoff.
Still, the contest to succeed retiring Rep. Cass Ballanger (R) ranks as one of the lowest-profile races this cycle.
Huffman used a recent TV ad to paint his 28-year-old opponent as a political opportunist who moved into the district just to run for Congress. He has also accused McHenry of throwing wild parties at his home.
Still, McHenry picked up the late endorsement of Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) on Friday, when she campaigned on his behalf in the district. Ballenger endorsed McHenry after the primary.
The winner of the runoff is expected to defeat little-known Democrat Anne Fischer by a large margin in November.