A Tar Heel Sleeper?

By Jim Ellis

March 25, 2016 — With the presidential campaign dominating the political media, it is easy to lose sight of the highly important 34 Senate races running simultaneously. At least one campaign appears to be in transition, and is rapidly shifting from relatively safe to potentially competitive.

Throughout 2015, it was commonly believed that North Carolina represented the Democrats’ most glaring candidate recruitment failure. Try as they might to attract a top name office holder or former statewide official like ex-US Sen. Kay Hagen, the party leaders could not convince a person of significant political stature to run. They settled for ex-state Rep. Deborah Ross and small town mayor Chris Rey. But the recent primary results and a new poll suggest that this race may be ascending the targeting charts.

In the March 15 statewide Democratic primary, Ross easily captured the Senate nomination and posted a much stronger-than-anticipated 62 percent against Rey (16 percent) and two other opponents. North Carolina carries a 40 percent run-off requirement; meaning, if no candidate exceeds this particular vote threshold the top two finishers move to a secondary election. Questions about Ross cracking the 40 percent mark consumed the pre-race predictions.

On the other hand, Sen. Richard Burr (R), who became the first incumbent from his particular seat to win re-election since 1968 when he did so in 2010, looked to be in strong position to seek a third term. Though he was drawing primary opposition from the right, his re-nomination was never in doubt. While easily defeating his three opponents, the two-term incumbent recorded only 61 percent against former Senate candidate Greg Brannon (who has now hopped into the June 7 congressional race against paired representatives George Holding and Renee Ellmers), and two others, was an under-performance. In fact, as you can see when examining the statistics, Ross actually performed a point better among Democrats than Burr did with Republicans.

Now comes the latest Public Policy Polling survey (March 18-20; 843 registered North Carolina voters) that gives Burr only a 40-35 percent lead over his new Democratic general election opponent. The senator’s job approval registered 32:40 percent positive to negative, but PPP polls typically skew negative for every office holder. Therefore, this score is not particularly alarming.

Accounting for population growth and changes in the North Carolina population and electorate, the state is trending toward even closer competition between the two political parties.

In the 21st Century presidential campaigns, North Carolinians voted Republican in three of the four elections (exception: Obama over McCain in 2008), but the small margins of victory are noteworthy in the last two campaigns. President George W. Bush scored a pair of 56 percent wins in his two North Carolina efforts, but both President Obama and 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney carried the state with a bare 50 percent win percentage.

The primary turnout gives us another clue that North Carolina could again become a political barn-burner this year. While Republicans are typically turning out in much greater numbers for the 2016 primaries throughout the country (in only four states have Democrats topped Republican voter participation), and usually by substantial margins, in North Carolina the two parties were virtually tied. Republicans saw 1,138,726 people vote in their March 15 primary, while Democrats hosted almost the same number: 1,129,231.

Sen. Burr remains a decided favorite for re-election, but the most recent signs suggest his projected cakewalk to re-election may be spotted with several potholes.

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