By Beltway standards, Richard Burr’s first term in the Senate has been a pretty successful one. Elected in 2004 after serving ten years in the House, Burr was one of the “Magnificent Seven,” a slate of new conservative senators. A mere four years later, the North Carolina lawmaker was mentioned as a possible running mate for John McCain. And, last year, he took on a key leadership role (chief deputy whip).
In his home state, however, Burr is anything but a star. On August 3, Public Policy Polling (PPP), a left-leaning firm, reported that he has only a two-point lead over his Democratic opponent, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. In early July, Burr led by five points. Three days later, right-leaning Rasmussen Reports moved the North Carolina race from “Solid GOP” to “Leans GOP” in its election rankings. Burr’s approval ratings, long-middling, are also getting worse: According to PPP, 44 percent of voters don’t like the job Burr is doing, up from 35 points earlier this year. “[T]his race is all about Richard Burr, the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the country,” Dean Debnam, president of PPP, said in a statement.
Granted, Burr is still the favorite to win: He’s a Republican incumbent with a lot of money at his disposal. As of mid-July, FiveThirtyEight.com gave him an 82 percent chance of winning. But Burr’s declining poll numbers and weak public image could offer Democrats their best long-shot hope for gaining a Senate seat this year. At the very least, drawing Burr into a tight race might force the national GOP to divert attention and resources from other battleground states where it is actually looking to pick up seats. The question now is whether Democrats will take advantage of his vulnerability, or let it go to waste.
North Carolina political insiders on both sides of the aisle agree: Burr’s poll numbers are uncomfortably low because voters don’t really know who he is. PPP reports that about one quarter of North Carolina voters still have no opinion of the job Burr is doing, and his approval ratings have been hovering well below 50 percent (often in the thirties) since the firm started tracking the 2010 Senate race about two years ago. Why? “He’s a cipher,” says Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina and co-author of the blog Talking About Politics. “He’s been in Washington sixteen years but hasn’t left any footprints that voters here can recall.”
Sure, Burr sits on committees relevant to his constituents (veterans’ affairs and armed services, for instance), but he isn’t the sort to rally behind a cause where the public can see him. He’s more of a lockstep-with-his-party kind of legislator; he votes with other Republicans—about 94 percent of the time in this Congress—and usually stays out of the news. “In an age of red-hot rhetoric and sound-bites, Burr's style is cool, almost professorial,” The Raleigh News & Observer noted earlier this summer, adding that the senator doesn’t like to make an entrance, often driving himself to political events without an entourage of aides. “He suffers from the fact that he’s not a celebrity,” says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina. And the Tar Heel State is used to celebrity senators: Jesse Helms, John Edwards, and Elizabeth Dole, to name a few.
Because he’s such a blank slate, Burr can find himself uniquely susceptible to attack, particularly on populist grounds. Recently, for instance, he voted against extending unemployment benefits, saying it would be a disincentive for people to look for jobs and unnecessarily balloon the deficit. But, as of June, North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 10 percent, half a point higher than the national average. Many of Burr’s constituents pounced, accusing him of being out of touch with North Carolina voters. “We're fed up with rich elites criticizing working Americans who are trying to find work in the worst economy since the Great Depression,” read a letter to the editor in North Carolina’s Asheville Citizen-Times. Similar letters appeared in other state newspapers, and liberal groups attacked him for being a “do nothing” senator who “just doesn’t get it” and should “consider spending a lot less time in Florida playing golf with corporate lobbyists.”
Burr’s quiet public persona also means gaffes can often land him in headlines. There was the April 2009 speech in which he recounted how he’d told his wife to make a run on their bank at the start of the economic crisis. About a year later, there was a video showing Burr exploiting an obscure Senate rule to stall a committee hearing, just to slow down legislative business in response to the Democrats’ victory on health care reform. (This recently showed up as the lead anecdote in a New Yorker story about how dysfunctional the Senate has become.)
So Burr finds himself in a sticky position this campaign season. A stronger public image could help him come November; he could portray himself as a warrior who’s taken a stand for North Carolina by sponsoring his own important legislation and repeatedly saying “no” to the Obama administration. But, on the flip side, “trying to turn him into Superman in tights and a cape will just [make him look] phony,” says Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina Republican strategist and the second author of Talking About Politics. (It doesn’t help that an ominous specter hangs over Burr’s seat: No incumbent has been reelected to it since 1968.)
All this leaves Democrats an opening, if they’re willing to take it. Burr has said he won’t begin his campaign in earnest until September, and, in his last election, he waited until the last few weeks to hammer his opponent. That means there’s still time for the Democrats to frame this race in Elaine Marshall’s favor—by defining Burr’s elusive public image. “[He has] no personal protection against any kind of contrast people would raise,” says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who is doing work for the Marshall campaign.
In a state with voter registration that’s 45 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican, and 23 percent independent, Elaine Marshall will need to appeal not only to her base but also to moderate voters who haven’t yet decided whom to support. “This is a state that doesn’t allow people to have landslides,” says Ferrel Guillory of UNC. Already, Marshall is throwing punches at Burr for his position on unemployment benefits, using it to underscore his hypocrisy on deficit spending. (He wants to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and has voted in the past to increase funding for both Iraq and Afghanistan.) Marshall could also focus on Burr’s opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which protects women against wage discrimination. According to PPP, one-fifth of female voters in North Carolina don’t yet know whom they’ll vote for, but 71 percent either disapprove of Burr (40 percent) or aren’t sure how they feel about him (31 percent)—meaning there’s room to pick up support. Marshall could attack Burr from other angles, too: his ties to Wall Street and other special interest groups, or even his “yes” vote on TARP, which PPP has found isn’t likely to play well among voters. (Marshall, taking advantage of her challenger status, hasn’t said whether she would have voted for TAR. In a candidates’ questionnaire back in April, she wrote, “TARP stabilized the financial sector, but it was done on terms that were favorable to the industry. … Taxpayer's [sic] got a raw deal.”)
But, so far, Marshall has run a very understated campaign. She wasn’t the national party’s first pick to take on Burr; that designation went to Cal Cunningham, a young Iraq veteran who forced Marshall into a primary runoff in June. The ordeal sapped Marshall’s coffers: In the most recent campaign finance reports, filed in July, she had roughly $160,000 on hand, while Burr had a whopping $6 million. (The next reports aren’t due until October.) Her profile is still very low, too: PPP has found that 58 percent of voters don’t have an opinion of her. She has yet to run a TV ad in the general election, so her attack efforts, as well as those meant to introduce herself to voters, have been limited mostly to speeches, press releases, and local articles. “She clearly needs national assistance to run a strong campaign,” says Guillory.
Indeed, the key to beating Burr will be outside money, from both national Democrats and independent groups. So far, though, the cash hasn’t exactly been flowing—save for a series of ads from several environmental groups and unions linking Burr to big oil in the wake of the BP spill. (One ad shows Burr covered in oil being dragged from the ocean and then cleaned in a tub. "We pulled one out of the water this morning. … Name’s Senator Richard Burr,” a voice says.) The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) hasn’t run any ads against Burr. Until early August, it still included mention of Cal Cunningham on its website, and it excluded Burr from the first round of a three-part feature on its homepage called “Meet the Republicans,” which describes the records of GOP candidates. Sharron Angle, David Vitter, and Rand Paul made the first cut. “If I was the Marshall campaign, that would disturb me,” Pearce says. (The DSCC did finally add North Carolina to its map of targeted races last week.)
To really bring in the big bucks, Marshall must first solidify her competitive chops by raising some of her own money. “At some point, [the DSCC is] going to take some soundings and decide whether it’s worth investing in her or not. That’s going to be a key moment for her candidacy,” Guillory says.
But the sooner the DSCC and other funders act, the better, because the questions of who Richard Burr is and what he stands for are up for grabs. If Democrats can answer them before he does, Burr could be in for a very tough fight—maybe even an upset.
Seyward Darby is the assistant managing editor of The New Republic.