Clinton’s lead in NC elevates Senate race

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Democrats see an opening to win a Senate seat in North Carolina amid the electoral turmoil caused by Donald Trump.

The Republican incumbent, Sen. Richard Burr, had not been expected to be vulnerable this cycle. But his Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Deborah Ross, has posted strong fundraising numbers and has seen a boost in recent polls.

{mosads}With Democrat Hillary Clinton pouring resources into North Carolina for her presidential campaign, and more likely Democratic voters registering in the state, Democrats say North Carolina is becoming a real Senate battleground.

“I think the race is shaping up to be very favorable for Deborah,” said Scott Falmlen, former executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party. “Where we sit now … I feel really good about where we’re positioned, how we’re positioned, and what our candidates are doing.”

Clinton has made the Tar Heel State a high priority, as both her campaign and main super-PAC, Priorities USA, have funneled money into the state and built a strong ground operation there. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has a much smaller footprint in North Carolina, with no campaign spending so far except for some help from outside groups.

Recent polls are reflecting the benefits of Clinton’s heavy investment. An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll on Friday found her comfortably ahead by 9 points in a state Democrats haven’t carried since 1976, with the exception of 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama won it by a razor-thin margin. The new numbers for Clinton are up from the 6-point lead she had in last month’s poll.

That same poll showed Ross leading for the first time, up by 2 points. Though within the margin of error, this is a big improvement from last month, when she trailed Burr by 7 points.

Friday’s poll “reflects the fact that folks are responding to Deborah’s message of change — change from typical Washington insider politicians like Richard Burr who have continually looked out for themselves, their big-money donors and special interests while failing to stand up for the working people who elected them,” said Ross spokesman Cole Leiter.

Some in the state are drawing comparisons between this race and the 2008 Senate race between then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) and then-state Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who at the time had little statewide recognition. Hagan pulled off a victory in a big year for Democratic gains in addition to President Obama’s win.

“Hagan kind of came from nowhere. Dole was sort of seen as kind of a little bit aloof and out of touch with North Carolina,” said Andy Taylor, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University. “I think Democrats are hoping that that kind of scenario is reprised.”

While Democrats hope that Clinton’s early dominance in the state will trickle into down-ballot races, strategists and political observers expect the presidential race to tighten in the state over the next three months.

They point to Ross’s low name recognition in the state as a roadblock and the fact that while she has outpaced Burr in the last two fundraising quarters this year, she still trails him in cash on hand.

But Burr faces his own set of challenges. Past polls have shown that he has a negative job approval rating and has his own name recognition problems, which is rare for an incumbent.

Plus, Trump complicates the equation for Burr, who backs the GOP nominee. Burr was one of the few senators up for reelection to attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and campaigned with Trump last month at his Winston-Salem, N.C., rally.

Republican strategists suggest that he instead focus on the Senate race and drive home the issues close to him, such as national security, since he is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. They believe this will help him overcome his name recognition issues, which they say have dogged his previous campaigns.

“Knowing his record and how he talks about it, that’s not going to be” a problem, said GOP strategist Doug Heye, who ran Burr’s 2004 campaign. “It wasn’t an issue last time and shouldn’t be this time.”

For Burr’s part, his campaign is brushing off Friday’s poll, saying it’s “inconsistent” with past surveys that have largely shown the GOP senator leading, and will instead focus on highlighting Ross’s tenure as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) state director.

“What is consistent is we continue to have the best candidate in the race and the only campaign with the resources to effectively communicate a message to North Carolina voters,” said Burr spokesman Jesse Hunt. “Deborah Ross’s radical record from her time with ACLU is unchanged and is one that’s deeply out of step with mainstream voters.”

But Republicans warn that the party must not ignore Clinton’s impact in the state.

GOP strategist Carter Wrenn, who has run presidential and statewide campaigns, said that it looks like a Democratic wave is starting to shape up, and if that becomes the case, Republicans will need to turn out the crucial independent voter bloc.

He noted that while independent voters are currently more supportive of Clinton, Burr can try to convince those voters — who mainly reside in the suburban areas of Charlotte and Raleigh — to split their tickets and vote for him.

“I think how much Hillary wins by is the huge factor,” Wrenn said. “It’d be a big mistake to underestimate that problem right now if you’re Republican.”

The recent appeals court ruling that struck down parts of North Carolina’s 2013 election law also maximizes Democrats’ opportunity this fall. The ruling means voters no longer have to show identification when they cast a ballot, can register on Election Day and have 17 days of early voting instead of 10.

These are measures that typically benefit low-income and minority voters, who traditionally vote Democratic. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) is currently seeking a stay on the decision from the Supreme Court.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for both Burr and Ross this cycle will be competing for attention and resources with the unconventional presidential race and high-profile gubernatorial race.

The race hasn’t seen much outside spending so far, but One Nation, a Karl Rove-aligned nonprofit, has already aired ads backing vulnerable Republican incumbents including Burr and will run a $1.5 million ad buy starting Tuesday for 10 days in the Charlotte and Raleigh areas.

Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College, said the candidates will need to break through all the political noise and try to define their opponent.

“They’re going to have to compete in an already-crowded advertising market because of the governor’s race and the presidential race,” Bitzer said. “But it’s typically whoever can frame the opposition may start to get a leg up.”

Ross and Burr will have that opportunity over the next three months, but Democrats can’t help but feel emboldened if Clinton can replicate Obama’s ground game in North Carolina.

“If Hillary Clinton wins North Carolina, Deborah Ross is going to be in the Senate,” said Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist who ran former Gov. Jim Hunt’s first campaign and other statewide races. 

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Kay Hagan Richard Burr

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