Sen. Richard M. Burr’s low-key, no-frills approach to politicking won him two Senate elections in North Carolina. Whether that carries him to a third term is up in the air.
The Republican heads into 2016 with an anemic 29 percent approval rating, according to recent polls . Still, that might be enough to hand the former businessman another six years — especially in a state rated Leans Republican by The Rothenberg-Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call and where Democrats can’t find a big-name opponent.
“[N.C. Gov.] Pat McCrory and Richard Burr both have the kinds of approval numbers that usually cause politicians to lose,” said Dean Debnam, Public Policy Polling president. “The question is whether the Democratic candidates will be strong enough to take advantage of that unpopularity.”
According to a survey of North Carolina voters in the last week of September by Democratic-leaning PPP, Burr outpolled each of four potential Democratic Party rivals in head-to-head matchups. The only one of the four Democrats to declare a candidacy, small-town mayor Chris Rey, fared the worst against Burr, losing by 12 points; former Rep. Heath Shuler, who has not declared, fared better. He’s only 5 points back.
Burr, who often drives himself to events around the state in a Hyundai hybrid — “Forty miles to the gallon. … I mean, I’m a cheap son of a gun.” — says his re-election bid is in better shape than polls or news coverage would indicate, dismissing many of the state’s newspapers as “historically Democrat rags.”
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee told CQ Roll Call in August that he’s counting on veterans to rally to his campaign. In 2014, he was the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that pushed through sweeping changes at VA hospitals.
Besides a sizable active-duty population, North Carolina is home to more than three-quarters of a million veterans who “understand the Senate Intelligence Committee,” Burr said. “We’ll touch them in a way from a standpoint of the election that nobody will be able to offset.”
He also contends pollsters and pundits underestimate the value of the brand of retail politics he practices with constituents.
His office gives an eye-popping number of Capitol tours, servicing 19,500 North Carolinians and their family members so far this year, while last year it toured more than 27,000 people, which Burr said has an “intrinsic impact on these races that is only going to get picked up when you actually have an election.”
“It’s not going to be picked up in polling,” Burr said.
Still, Democrats are convinced the right candidate can upend the low-profile Burr, who is perhaps best-known around the Capitol for driving his iconic 1973 Volkswagen Thing. Back home, the Republican has a name-identification problem among voters — 400,000 of them who moved into the state between April 2010, the last year Burr was re-elected, and July 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau.
“You’ve got an incumbent who is unknown to a large swath of people, you’ve got an incumbent with a one-to-one ratio on favorable/unfavorable, you’re heading into an electorate that’s probably going to be positive, certainly more positive for a Democrat than 2014 was, and so you’ve got a lot of good ingredients here,” Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reminded prospective candidates about all of this in July, but they’ve yet to secure a top-flight challenger.
Even Burr supporters acknowledge he sometimes flies under the radar.
“Senator Burr has had a quiet, heads-down, work-hard tenure as a U.S. senator and not necessarily brought attention to himself in the way that might better position him at this point in terms of name recognition,” said Joe Stewart, executive director of the NC Free Enterprise Foundation, which tracks legislative races for the state’s business community.
In 2004, then-Rep. Burr won a tight, five-point race for the Senate against Erskine Bowles, a top adviser to former President Bill Clinton. In his 2010 bid for a second term, he increased that winning margin 12 points. It’s worth noting that at about this same point in the 2010 cycle, a PPP poll had Burr in about the same as he is now, with a 34 percent approval rating and only 29 percent saying he deserved another term.
By the end of 2014, his fundraising inactivity began to feed retirement rumors. Since then, the 59-year-old father of two has picked up the pace, raising more than $3.7 million, with a third of that coming in just one fundraiser. During his last election cycle, Burr raised nearly $11 million and spent more than $6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“There’s nothing $8 million can’t change in the way of name ID and an awareness of what I’ve done,” Burr said.
From his preference of R.J. Reynolds tobacco products (he even went to R.J. Reynolds High School) to his sockless swagger — locals say it’s a North Carolina thing — Burr doesn’t stray too far from his Winston-Salem roots. He focuses on issues he believes are important to his voters, like tobacco, national security and veterans issues.
Between local media interviews and appearances on a muggy August day in Raleigh, Burr told CQ Roll Call he feels the same motivation he felt when he first ran for Congress.
“I did it for one reason, because I was so frustrated with Washington and the inability to get things done,” Burr said, noting that he recently learned he would be a grandfather. “It has nothing to do with me, it has everything to do with my kids and my grandchildren.”