It's one of the nation's premier Senate races. And both sides just launched a massive "he-said, she-said" fight that may decide not only this race but also which party controls the Senate this November.
The high-stakes war of words started Tuesday, when Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) launched a statewide TV ad accusing his Democratic opponent, former state lawmaker and ACLU lawyer Deborah Ross, of opposing a North Carolina sex offender registry.
In the ad, a Marine sergeant shares that she was raped, criticizing Ross for opposing the creation of the sex offender registry in the ’90s. "She wants to protect sexual predators over victims," says a somber Sgt. Kelly Lowe. "When they choose to rape, they don't get those rights back."
A heartless liberal fighting to protect sex offenders' rights over victims? That's damning stuff for voters to hear in one of Democrats' most promising pickup opportunities, and Democrats know it.
Which is why they launched their own response on the same day. Ross didn't oppose the sex offender registry, Democrats say in their own TV ad rebuttal. She actually fought to strengthen it.
"I told my friend Deborah to ignore those false attack ads," says Fountain Odom, a former state senator and a Democrat who sponsored a 1997 law to put the sex offender registry online. "Senator Burr is flat out lying, and that's why people hate politics. Deborah not only supports the sex offender registry, she worked to make it stronger."
So, both sides are trying to paint a black-and-white narrative that's totally inconsistent with the other. Either a key point got lost in translation here, or the stakes are high enough in North Carolina's Senate race that both sides are willing to bet their political campaigns on their version of events of this particular story.
We're going to say it's the latter. And the way this is shaping up, it could be the story that dominates the campaign.
Democrats say Ross, who was then the head of North Carolina's ACLU, expressed concern about the impact the registry might have on outing victims, because at the time, Ross said more than half of sexual abuse offenses involve a family member. But having concern isn't the same thing as opposing it, they said, pointing to votes she took as a state lawmaker they say strengthened the registry.
Republicans counter that if you have to explain why you have troubles with a sex offender registry, then you're already losing the debate. They point to news articles from the ’90s in which she expressed concern about "vigilantism."
Basically, Republicans think they've finally got Ross on the defensive in a race that, up until this point, has mostly put their guy in that spot. Burr has weathered criticism from Republicans in Washington and North Carolina for not taking his challenge seriously. (Two higher-profile candidates passed on challenging him.)
Democrats don't argue Burr's ad could be bad news for their candidate. They shared with The Fix internal polling that shows Ross takes a significant double-digit hit after voters see Burr's ad about the sex offender registry. (Before the ad, the race is virtually tied. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Ross with a one-point lead, even though polls show at least 50 percent of North Carolina voters don't know enough about her to have an opinion.) But Democrats say Ross regains the lead voters hear Ross was trying to make the law safer by expressing her concerns, not derail it, especially when that message is coupled with attack ads from Democratic outside groups portraying Burr as a self-interested politician.
See what just happened here? We're already getting dragged into a he-said, she-said about this ad — and the race more broadly.
We're not saying you have to get dragged into this, too, but if you're interested in the fate of the Senate, this may be one of those shouting matches worth following. North Carolina is one of three battleground Senate races in red-leaning or purple-ish states where Republicans are trying to fend off Democratic challengers.
Three races in which Republicans are on the defensive is not insignificant. To take back control of the Senate, Democrats essentially need to knock off four Republicans while holding onto their only competitive seat, in Nevada.
North Carolina, thanks in part to its competitiveness at the presidential level, is quickly becoming ground zero for that partisan tug-of-war. That may be why things just took a turn for the ugly in the Senate race.