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Was Richard Burr’s Re-Election Bid Always Supposed to Be This Competitive?

North Carolina Republicans say tightening race doesn't surprise them

North Carolina Republicans say Sen. Richard M. Burr’s race against Democratic challenger Deborah Ross was always going to be close. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
North Carolina Republicans say Sen. Richard M. Burr’s race against Democratic challenger Deborah Ross was always going to be close. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With all the chatter about Sen. Richard M. Burr’s re-election contest becoming more competitive, North Carolina Republicans are effectively saying, “We told you so.”

Over the course of the summer, it’s gone from a third-tier race to a matchup that’s attracting national attention and dollars. Tightening numbers in the Tar Heel State have provoked much publicized angst among Washington Republicans.

“There’s no reason this race should be on the board with a weak challenger like Deborah Ross,” one national Republican operative said Tuesday, referring to Burr’s Democratic opponent. Republicans salivate over opposition research on Ross, a former American Civil Liberties Union state director, whom they want to paint as too liberal for North Carolina.  

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But for Paul Shumaker, a Burr consultant and a self-described “data guy,” this race is where he’s expected it to be for months. 

“This is my state. I’ve seen nothing yet that surprises me, nothing that’s unusual,” he said.

Burr is up by 2.7 points in the latest RealClearPolitics polling average. In a recent Elon College poll, Burr was down a point. Shumaker disputes the methodology of some of those polls — particularly Elon’s toplines since it had Burr up 16 points with independents and carrying Republicans with 93 percent. But he insists this was always going to be a close race. 

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Washington Republicans, meanwhile, would like to see Burr hold a more comfortable lead in the polls — and, at the very least, start campaigning more aggressively to defend his seat. 

There’s an expectations game, of course, in any race analysis.

Playing up the race’s competitiveness, as both Democrats and Republicans have done, helps them drum up money and attention for their candidates. And in some cases, it kicks their candidates into higher gear. 

A swing state 

But Shumaker has been predicting a nail-biter for months now, despite the fact that Ross was far from the Democrats’ first choice. Just looking at the past two presidential elections tells the story of North Carolina’s evolution into a swing state, Republicans in the state say.

President Barack Obama carried the Tar Heel State in 2008 by less than half a point. Four years later, he lost it by 2 points. The state’s 2014 Senate race — where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan lost to Thom Tillis — was one of the closest in the country. And Republicans in the state predict the Senate race in 2020 is likely to be just as close.

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“Is Burr supposed to be some anomaly in politics outpacing the past performance of the state as a whole?” Shumaker asked.

An influx of out-of-staters and rising urbanization have changed the electorate since Burr was first elected to the Senate in 2004. New North Carolinians may not know Burr as well — and many newcomers tend to be younger and unaffiliated with either party, said North Carolina GOP consultant Carter Wrenn. 

“People in Washington thought, ‘Well hell, that’s a gimme,'” about the North Carolina race, Wrenn said. “They obviously hadn’t looked at the numbers.”

Expecting Burr to be safe in a swing state at the presidential level “doesn’t make any sense,” he added. 

That’s what Shumaker was saying even before Donald Trump clinched the GOP nomination. 

“If you’re in an area that falls under the ‘swing universe’ you’d better bring an A-game to the table regardless of who the nominee is and regardless of which party you come from,” Shumaker told Roll Call in March.

A ‘lazy’ campaigner?

But the concern from Washington Republicans is that Burr hasn’t brought his A-game. The word some use is “lazy.”

He’s repeatedly said he doesn’t become a candidate until October. That may have worked for him in the past, GOP operatives say, but 2016 isn’t 2010.

“Ohio is a swing state and [Rob] Portman is up 20 because he worked really hard,” said a Republican operative, referring to a CNN/ORC poll that gave the freshman Ohio senator a double-digit lead.

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Ross has outraised Burr lately, but he has a cash-on-hand advantage that could have allowed him to go on air much earlier.

“You could argue ad infinitum that Burr should have done more positives to get up his name ID, but he probably would have still ended up in the same place,” Wrenn said. 

“Voters in North Carolina are seeing plenty of Richard Burr,” Wrenn said, referring to Burr’s presence on air now.

That Burr is finally on TV, though, is small consolation to Republicans fretting about all the campaigning he’s not doing.

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“The idea that if you go to a Rotary Club and talk to 50 people. … That’s just B.S.,” Wrenn said, disputing the effectiveness of traditional campaign events. That’s not how to reach swing voters, Shumaker agreed.

Neither are polls very helpful, Shumaker said. 

“Polls give you a snapshot in time,” he said. “Data analytics gives you the tools to make real tactical decisions and commitment of campaign resources to the ground game.”

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