RALEIGH — Republican Sen. Richard Burr drives alone, steering his white 2013 Hyundai sedan to dozens of factory tours and other North Carolina stops. If there’s a TV camera or a reporter, he’ll talk. If not, he’ll move on.
Large-scale campaign events are rare for him less than three months before voters decide whether to keep him in office. That’s the way the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman likes it, and it’s been part of a winning formula in several elections, including two for the Senate. It’s like his penchant for wearing loafers without socks, even in the dead of winter. Why change?
In the year of Donald Trump, a divisive state law limiting anti-discrimination rules for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s rocky tenure, Burr’s stay-the-course approach will be sorely tested. His Senate duties take precedence, even during the summer recess.
“I become a candidate on Oct. 7, when the United States Senate is adjourned,” Burr insisted in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t want there to be any question between the separation of Senate business, so I have very few conversations with campaigns and it really plays no role in my actions.”
Polls show a close race with Democrat Deborah Ross, a former state legislator from Raleigh who has raised more money than Burr in recent months. A Burr defeat would give Senate Democrats a surprise seat as they try to regain the majority.
Ross is traveling the state accusing Burr of voting to support cutting Social Security benefits and proposing to privatize Medicare. She says Burr also failed to speak forcefully against North Carolina’s recently passed LGBT law. She says anger over how Republicans are running the state follows to her federal race.
“Everywhere I go I feel the energy that the people of North Carolina want to take the state back and they want a change from what North Carolina has had,” Ross said. “This is about me, it’s about the governor’s race, it’s about all up and down the ticket.”
Reaching voters soon in the presidential battleground state is important because absentee voters begin mailing their ballots in mid-September, and popular early in-person voting begins Oct. 20.
Each candidate began running their first ads this week, but many more were expected from Burr for what he says is his final election. Through June, Burr had more than $6.9 million in cash on hand compared with $1.9 million for Ross. Still, in a possible sign of worry from Washington, a super PAC dedicated to helping Senate Republicans is running $1.5 million in commercials favorable to Burr on Medicare.
Burr said Ross’ claims about Social Security and Medicare are “laughable,” calling a recent vote about Social Security purely procedural. In 2012, Burr co-sponsored a plan to overhaul Medicaid that in part would have raised the eligibility age and shifted older adults to private insurance more quickly.
Burr and his campaign staff have signaled a topic for future ads — Ross’ previous career as state director of the American Civil Liberties Union. His campaign team has repeatedly accused her of a “radical” record while representing the ACLU, saying she opposed a state sex offender registry and amending the U.S. Constitution to ban flag burning. Ross says the group defends individuals against government overreach and raised concerns 20 years ago about an early registry bill because it could have indirectly identified victims.
Ross has tried to tie Burr to the LGBT law, even though he had nothing to do with its passage. He has made measured comments about the law, which also directs transgender people to use bathrooms in government buildings aligned with the gender on their birth certificates. Burr has criticized both the Charlotte City Council for passing an ordinance that led to the state law and the General Assembly for going too far with what it passed.
The law has “really been a black eye for our state,” Ross told 75 young entrepreneurs at a question-and-answer session this month in Durham. “Too bad that our senior federal senator didn’t recognize that it was a federal issue,” she added, noting federal lawsuits challenging the law could be ultimately settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Republicans dismiss Democrats’ talk about the state law as a distraction to this race. Still, Ross’ strong opposition to it is attractive to unaffiliated voter Isa Watson, 29, of Chapel Hill, the founder of a technology company to help nonprofits raise money who attended the Durham event.
“I really want someone who intently listens to people, which I think clearly Deborah has done,” Watson said, and “someone who is standing up for the right things.”
Ross said Trump’s candidacy is also helping her because Burr “has given him a bear hug” by endorsing him. Burr said he’s been vocal when he’s disagreed with Trump, but “I’m supportive of the nominee. I’m not going to run from that.”
Republican Ken Brown, 64, of Raleigh said he’s more likely to back Burr knowing that he supports Trump. While Burr has been a regular on television news programs talking about national security issues since becoming the Intelligence Committee chairman in 2015, he’s otherwise kept a low profile.
“I’d rather see somebody like Richard Burr, who doesn’t seem to get a lot of flak and does his job in office, as opposed to wiping the (slate) clean,” said Brown, a real estate agent. “You’ve got to have some kind of stability.”