Burr is not alone among potentially vulnerable incumbents with low name recognition in key states that will decide which party controls the Senate in 2017. Of the 25 least known senators, ten are running for re-election — nine of them Republican — as relative unknowns, with roughly 30 percent of their voters unable to form an opinion of them. That list includes Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).
A prime cause of this fight for name recognition is the increasingly fragmented media in which partisans largely receive their news from ideologically driven cable news and social media.
Middle-of-the-road voters, reliant on their local news, are often left in the dark.
Overall, there are more reporters covering Congress than ever, except they increasingly write for inside Washington publications whose readers are lawmakers, lobbyists and Wall Street investors. A Pew Research Center study released earlier this year found that at least 21 states do not have a single dedicated reporter covering Congress.
“We go six years with no coverage,” Burr said in an interview this week, lamenting the fading interest in his state’s congressional delegation. “So it’s like you weren’t here for six years. Your name ID drops into the 40s.” Run $5 million in ads, he said, “it pops right back up to the 80s.”
The Morning Consult study points to another distinction about today’s Senate: Iconoclasts stand out.
After little more than three years in elected office, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has reached near saturation level with Bay State voters, with just 12 percent having no opinion of the liberal firebrand. Meanwhile, Sen. Ed Markey (D) — an institution in Massachusetts politics after 37 years in the House and three in the Senate — does not register with 30 percent of his constituents.
It’s the same dynamic in Texas with the state’s two Republican senators. Ted Cruz — an erstwhile conservative presidential contender — has held elective office not even three-and-a-half years, yet all but 14 percent of his voters have a strong view of him. A third of Texans cannot form a view of John Cornyn, the Republican whip with nearly 14 years in the Senate who is likely to be the next GOP floor leader.
The Morning Consult survey is not a perfect snapshot of the Senate races. It uses online, opt-in surveys which are less reliable than the traditional methodology of calling a random sample of the population. Live interview surveys in some of the states produced varying levels of approval for these senators, but the similar thread in both forms of polling was a large bloc of voters not having an opinion of the senator’s job performance.
In a recent interview the head of a Republican-leanding super PAC, citing his organization’s own internal polling, cited the low visibility of the incumbents as one of his leading concerns heading into November.
Most of these low-profile senators are not unpopular; 44 percent of North Carolinians approve of Burr’s job performance while just 29 percent disapprove, according to Morning Consult. Portman is also well-liked, with an almost 2-to-1 approval rating.
But the fear is that too many voters don’t know these senators and that the only way to reach them is through advertising. Portman, with almost a third of Ohioans registering no opinion of his performance, has already reserved $15 million worth of advertising on Ohio TV stations.
If Portman doesn’t make the push, national Democrats and challenger Ted Strickland (D) will do the job for him through attack ads. One Democratic video recently tied Portman and other Republicans to controversial statements by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
This lack of identity can create real problems in how a senator runs for re-election, particularly in growing states like North Carolina and Colorado. Burr estimates that there will be 500,000 new residents in the Tar Heel state since his 2010 campaign.
When Burr arrived in the mid-1990s for five terms in the House, before winning his Senate seat in 2004, three North Carolina newspapers had thriving Washington bureaus. Now, there are none. However, the McClatchy news group’s Washington bureau has two reporters whose beats include state delegation coverage.
“I can give a major policy speech, and no newspaper in Charlotte or Raleigh or Winston-Salem will even cover that I was there, much less that I gave a policy speech,” said Burr, whose long climb up the ladder last year landed him the chairman’s gavel of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sen. Michael Bennet is the only Democratic incumbent in danger of losing his seat, in a state, Colorado, where about 100,000 new residents arrive each year. Despite being appointed in 2009 and winning a full six-year term in 2010, Bennet is less well-known than his junior colleague, Sen. Cory Gardner (R), who took office 16 months ago.
That’s largely because Gardner’s 2014 Senate race, costing nearly $100 million on all sides, remains somewhat fresh in voters’ minds, while Bennet’s razor-thin victory six years ago is long forgotten.
Republican strategists believe that Gardner’s opponent, Mark Udall, made a critical mistake at the outset of the campaign. Udall, after six years as a low-profile senator, kicked off his 2014 campaign with a vicious set of ads against Gardner on abortion issues.
That theme continued throughout the campaign, and Republicans believe it hurt Udall as much or more than Gardner, because too many voters did not know Udall and he lacked a strong enough foundation to go negative against his opponent.
Perhaps cognizant of that, Bennet’s first shot on the airwaves this spring is an amusing ad showing his work with the Food and Drug Administration to ease regulations so Colorado’s growing beer brewery industry could sell spent grains to local farms.
Gardner noted that today’s media structure gave lawmakers greater opportunities to reach their voters, but also created a more distracted electorate. “You have far more ways to communicate with constituents, but that means constituents have far more ways to look at other information,” he said.
Indeed, Portman devoted Tuesday afternoon to meeting with students from Chagrin Falls Middle School, east of Cleveland, getting a round of applause and taking questions on the Senate steps. He posed for a photo and within an hour his 52,000 followers on Twitter got blasted that picture.
As these campaigns progress voters will get informed about these incumbents, senators say, but an overwhelming amount of that information will come from political advertising.
“By the time people go to vote, it’s not an issue,” Portman said.