MEMO: Richard Burr’s Vulnerability & The North Carolina Senate Race

TO: Interested Parties


DATE: July 13, 2015

RE: Richard Burr’s Vulnerability & The North Carolina Senate Race

Over the past several election cycles, North Carolina has cemented its status as a true swing state. One longtime North Carolina political columnist called it “the toughest neighborhood in the country” when it comes to winning political campaigns. In 2008, the state was Obama’s closest victory and in 2012 it was Romney’s closest victory showing just how competitive the Tar Heel State has become. This polarized environment spells big trouble for 20-year Washington veteran Richard Burr who pundits have called “vulnerable” has he heads into re-election.

A Deeply Purple State

In 2014, North Carolina hosted one of the closest Senate races in the country that was also the most expensive contest, with outside groups on the right spending more against the Democrat than any other candidate in the country. Despite the enormous Republican wave, the Democratic incumbent kept the margin razor thin, falling short by roughly 1.5% or just 48,000 votes. In 2008, Democrats swept the state, electing a Democratic senator, governor and president.

In 2012, Republicans won 9 of 13 House seats and expanded their majorities in the state House and Senate. This created the perception that Republicans had deep support in the state, however, the numbers show otherwise. In 2012, Democratic House candidates actually received more votes overall than Republican House candidates, showing that the Republican gains were due primarily to gerrymandered election maps. Democratic candidates received 51% of the vote (2.2 million votes) to Republicans’ 49% (2.1 million votes.)

Since then, the Republican brand has suffered a major hit in North Carolina as the governor and legislature have overreached with their new majorities by adding restrictions on women’s health care and slashing education funding while at the same time increasing taxes on working families. Any Republican running in North Carolina in 2016 will have to wear this tarnished brand around their neck, and the state is widely expected to be a tough battleground at both the state, Senate and Presidential levels.

A Vulnerable Republican Incumbent

The dean of North Carolina’s political press corps recently warned that Richard Burr should be prepared for a political brawl in next year’s election.” Despite spending the last 20 years in Washington, Richard Burr is not well-known or well-liked in North Carolina. The most recent public poll pegged his approval rating at just 28% with a disapproval rating of 39% and leaving 33% who can’t even rate his performance. That approval rating is actually down 7 points from the previous public poll.

The Raleigh News and Observer’s Rob Christensen described Burr this way in a recent column:

He has a low public profile despite two terms in office. He is not associated with any major issues. His speaking style tends toward policy-wonkese, he largely avoids the Sunday talking head interview shows, and he often campaigns before small audiences.

Burr has yet to be tested in a tough electoral environment. He was first elected to the Senate in 2004 and re-elected in 2010, which were both banner years for Republicans across the country. Supporters who point to Burr’s 2010 re-election as proof that he will run strong in 2016 are willfully ignoring that 2016 will be a wildly different electoral environment that is expected to favor Democrats. Higher Presidential-year turnout is an unfavorable sign for Republicans – especially those like Burr who are without a strong personal brand.

Bottom Line

Over the past several election cycles, North Carolina has become a fiercely competitive battleground state that neither party can take for granted. Richard Burr is not well-known or well-liked, and given the expected makeup of the 2016 electorate, all signs point to a difficult road ahead for this longtime-incumbent.

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