LEVEL CROSS, N.C. — It wasn’t supposed to come down to this. The Senate majority was supposed to be decided in New Hampshire and Ohio and Florida.
But here stands Sen. Richard Burr, rallying fellow North Carolina Republicans with a lot more than his own 22-year congressional career on the line.
“I’m in the race of my life,” he tells hundreds of party activists gathered for a fish fry here at the home of stock-car racing legend Richard Petty. “I’ve got the toughest race I’ve been in, and it’s primarily because North Carolina is a battleground state.”
The Tar Heel State is indeed a key presidential battleground, a state that voted narrowly for Mitt Romney four years ago and is now a must-win for GOP nominee Donald Trump. But control of the Senate is also at stake, with Democratic candidates rallying in unexpected places like Indiana, Missouri and, yes, North Carolina.
With a four-seat margin, Republicans cannot afford a Burr loss if they are going to keep their majority, and polls have shown him leading but struggling to break away from his Democratic challenger, former state lawmaker Deborah Ross.
Ross is benefiting from a strong Democratic turnout effort and from campaign visits from President Obama, presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine. First lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to campaign in the state Thursday.
Burr, meanwhile, has had to deal with the headaches of sharing a GOP ticket with presidential nominee Donald Trump, as well as Gov. Pat McCrory (R), whose decision to sign a state bill blocking local anti-discrimination laws, known as HB2, sparked a backlash in North Carolina and beyond.
“It’s like a dumbbell,” said Gary Pearce, a veteran of Democratic politics in the state. “He’s got two weights on either side of him, between Trump and McCrory.”
National Republican operatives fret that the fate of their majority might rest on Burr, a quirky, low-octane minister’s son who is running a defiantly old-school race in a year that has left most standard campaign playbooks in ashes. Burr, they groan, should have done more sooner to disqualify Ross in the eyes of voters.
“Most of them couldn’t find North Carolina on a map,” Burr said in an interview. “Had I listened to them, I’d have two weeks left and no money, but I would have still the same $5.2 million that’s been placed by Democratic organizations and labor unions against me next week…. It’s not my first rodeo.”
Burr is facing a formidable opponent in Ross, a 53-year-old Raleigh lawyer who has weathered fierce scrutiny of her record as director of the state American Civil Liberties Union from 1994 to 2002. In that role, she defended the rights of politically unsavory characters, including flag-burning protesters and convicted sex offenders.
In a 1995 memo, Ross wrote that the state’s new public sex offender registry “would make it even harder for people to reintegrate into society and start over and could lead to vigilantism.” She later raised concerns when the registry was published online.
A recent Burr campaign ad featured a rape victim saying Ross “wants to protect sexual predators over victims.”
Ross moved to blunt any political damage by airing a response ad featuring a testimonial from the former Democratic state senator who sponsored the online registry bill and highlighting her subsequent votes as a lawmaker to strengthen the registry.
In an interview, Ross challenged not only the veracity of Burr’s attacks but the premise that North Carolina voters would reflexively reject her record as a civil-rights advocate.
“He’s making an assumption that this state is living in past decades,” Ross said. “The state has gotten younger, more educated, more progressive and more diverse, but this is also the state that wouldn’t ratify the Constitution without a Bill of Rights…. I think that I’m appealing to that history of this state, and it’s a history of this state that clearly Senator Burr doesn’t value, but the people do.”
“If you are explaining why you opposed creating a sex offender registry, you’re not in a good place politically,” said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist and North Carolina native who has previously advised the state Republican Party.
Ross and her Democratic allies, in turn, have spent millions of their own dollars tarring Burr, 60, as a Washington insider beholden to corporate interests, highlighting a proposal he promoted to privatize Medicare and his vote against a bill banning members of Congress from trading stocks based on their private knowledge as lawmakers.
Burr is known on Capitol Hill for his aversion to socks, his gunmetal-gray 1974 Volkswagen Thing, and for his hawkish views on national security, asserted as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and, more recently, as a member of Trump’s national security advisory council.
Trump’s antics are causing Senate Republicans across the country to squirm by forcing them to react to his remarks on women and racial minorities. But as Intelligence Committee chairman, Burr has been put in a uniquely awkward position by Trump’s refusal to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That dynamic was on full display at the race’s only debate earlier this month, held less than a week after Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said the 17 agencies he oversees are “confident” that the Russian government hacked emails in an effort “to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
Asked at the debate if he agreed that Russia was behind a series of Democratic Party hacks, Burr appeared unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge Clapper’s public statement and dodged when pressed on the issue. “I’m not in a position that I could make a comment on it,” he said.
In the interview, Burr issued a rare criticism of Trump for his light touch on Russia. But he said it did not change his views on Trump’s merits as a candidate.
“That’s where I might take a little bit of a disagreement with him, but he’s never had experience dealing with foreign policy with them,” he said. “He’s got to have a little bit of leeway.” Clinton, he said, “has a tremendous amount invested” in the present U.S. policy toward Russia, “and it’s 100 percent a failure.”
Burr isn’t breaking with McCrory, either. Quite the opposite: “The person who deserves to be reelected more than anyone else in the United States this year is Pat McCrory,” he told the crowd at the Petty event.
Steel said there is good reason to have faith in Burr’s political instincts.
“I’m not sure people who don’t live in North Carolina understand how Tar Heels like their politics, but Senator Burr certainly does,” he said. “There is a low-key, khakis-and-blue-button-downs feel to the state, and Senator Burr, right down to his sockless feet, fits the humble, low-key hardworking image that the state has of itself.”
Ross, meanwhile, has gently criticized Clinton for her use of a private email server but has otherwise embraced her candidacy. “We’re a team,” Ross said. “We’re all working together, from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ticket.” At a Sunday rally, Clinton returned the favor, calling Ross “exactly the kind of partner I need in the United States Senate.”
The political fates of the two women are likely to be closely intertwined, Pearce said: “If [Clinton] wins North Carolina by two points, Burr probably has a pretty good chance. If she wins by five or six points like some people are talking, that’s an awful lot of voters he’s got to get to mark in Hillary Clinton and Richard Burr.”
He will need plenty of voters like Kelley Kirkman, 50, a manager at a Winston-Salem technology firm who voted early Friday for Libertarian Gary Johnson, for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper and for Burr.
Kirkman said she was turned off by both Clinton and Trump. Her displeasure with HB2 soured her on McCrory. But she’s been comfortable with Burr, and the ads highlighting the sex offender registry kept her from taking a chance on Ross. “That sounded alarming to me,” she said.
But out of more than a dozen voters interviewed Thursday and Friday at early voting sites in the Piedmont Triad, a swing area, Kirkman was one of only three who split their tickets.
Burr said he’s not worried. He recalled his first Senate campaign, in 2004, when he ran against former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles in a race that Bowles appeared to lead until its final weeks.
A well-known Washington campaign forecaster met with him about a month before the election, Burr recalled: “He said, ‘What’s your plan?’ I said, ‘I got one.’ He said, ‘What is it?’ … I said, ‘Two days before the election, I’m going to go ahead, and I’m going to win.'”
“He went back, and he wrote this scathing article about how I had no campaign plan, and I ended up beating the president’s chief of staff,” he continued. “That’s how I look at elections.”