Democrats’ Unlikely Hope in North Carolina

Deborah Ross has been a welcome surprise for the party as it seeks to win the Senate majority.

North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Deborah Ross speaks at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton in Charlotte, N.C. on July 5.
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Sept. 22, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

WILMINGTON, N.C.—In a community-center basement on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon seven weeks from the election, Deborah Ross, a Democratic Senate candidate, wasted no time getting to her point.

In a single breath, she both thanked the audience for enduring the elements and landed her first blow on Republican Sen. Richard Burr, saying the difference between their records on women’s issues is “pretty stark.”

Ross isn’t pulling punches, and that should concern Republicans scraping to hold the Senate majority.

“Yes, I talk about Senator Burr,” Ross said, doubling down in an interview after the speech. “People here want change, so they need to know the difference.”

Burr, a second-term Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has taken the opposite approach. Reluctant to invoke Ross at all, even well into the final sprint of the race, he has instead continued to hold only official Senate events—26 in the first three weeks of August.

With the Senate back in session, Burr spent last weekend fundraising and didn’t hold a single public event. He insisted to reporters recently that his campaign will begin Oct. 7, when the chamber is out.

In an environment where Senate advertising can sometimes begin during the off year, Burr’s strategy is a glaring contrast to his Senate colleagues, many of whom are intimately involved in their reelection races. It stands out even more given the competitiveness of the state.

North Carolina hosted the most expensive Senate race in the country in 2014, and Republican Thom Tillis unseated Democrat Kay Hagan by just 2 points in that strong year for Republicans. As of January, Democrats held a registration advantage of more than 660,000 voters in a state with a rapidly diversifying electorate moving in the party’s favor.

Burr kicked off his TV ad campaign in September, with the first spots all positive. While he has held official events with constituents, he hasn’t engaged in typical campaign rhetoric, allowing Ross to go virtually untouched for her first six months of the race.

Asked about the race by Politico last week, Burr reiterated his commitment to his “full-time job” in D.C., and assessed the status of the race as: “In better shape than we dreamed.”

National Republican strategists are less assured. While races in Ohio and Florida have begun slipping away from Democrats, thanks to aggressive, months-long attacks on their candidates, a New York Times poll published Wednesday showed Ross up 4 points.

While the GOP-aligned Senate Leadership Fund alone reserved more than $8 million in airtime and the National Rifle Association is engaging, party strategists are increasingly concerned that Burr hasn’t done enough to shut down what should have been an easy opponent.

“It’s not like he’s not doing anything, but he keeps making the distinction about not campaigning, and doesn’t want to talk about Deborah Ross,” one Republican strategist said. “We expected it to be easier … but that doesn’t mean he can cruise.”

If Burr underestimated the race against Ross—which his campaign insists is not the case—he wouldn’t be alone.

“Everybody was really hoping that Kay Hagan would take another go at it, us among them,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in a recent interview with National Journal.

When Hagan passed, “a lot of folks sort of went, ‘OK, we’re done,’” Schriock said. “It took a moment for folks to believe that this race was going to be possible without a big name.”

National Democrats went though a number of preferred candidates, including Hagan, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and even former Rep. Heath Shuler.

EMILY’s List strategists were determined to find another woman. The group’s members in the state suggested Ross, a lawyer who spent a decade running North Carolina’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. While the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee continued its thorough recruitment process, Schriock said her group went in to help Ross assemble a campaign organization that could prove viability to national strategists.

EMILY’s List waited until Ross’s first fundraising quarter to officially endorse her, and the DSCC followed suit soon after, picking her over two other little known Democrats with more moderate profiles. Ross went on to outraise Burr in the first two fundraising quarters of this year, shocking party leaders on both sides.

Still, Ross’s ACLU record concerned fellow Democrats, who suggested that she was too liberal for a statewide race. Opponents on both sides of the aisle zeroed in on a 1995 letter Ross sent to the ACLU’s legislative committee, stating that a bill to create a sex-offender registry “would make it even harder for people to reintegrate into society and start over and could lead to vigilantism.”

Republicans celebrated her primary victory in March, believing they had a silver bullet for the suburban women who make up a large share of the state’s independent voters.

But so far, the sex-offender registry hasn’t been the weapon that Republicans had hoped and has yet to show up in a TV ad. Democratic state legislators who crafted the bill came to Ross’s defense on the issue, as has local media. When the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a digital ad on it last week, the Raleigh News & Observer’s editorial board instead slammed Burr. But Republicans insist they have more.

“The sex-offender registry is just cracking the door,” one GOP strategist said. “She didn’t just work there, she was the executive director and the lead attorney. Everything that came out of the ACLU for a nine-year period had her signature on it, and it hasn’t been touched.”

Ross was well prepared when asked about the issue Tuesday. She explained that while she has always favored the existence of a sex-offender registry, she flagged the initial bill for safety risks, and its sponsors “are grateful” for her initial pushback.

“I’m a little mystified at why he’s bringing this up,” Ross said of Burr.

Watching Ross wax on issues such as equal pay and paid sick leave, it’s not hard to understand why Republicans have struggled to paint her as a threat to women and families.

Also complicating their argument is the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, which introduced its own civil-liberties issues into the mix this year, sucking the oxygen away from a Senate race that is already in competition with two other high-profile races for president and governor.

In the latest fallout from the controversial House Bill 2, the NCAA recently announced its decision to move championship events out of the state.

“We’re just tired of being the laughingstock of the country,” said Alexandra Door, who attended the event with her husband.

Both had positive things to say about Burr, but they lamented the effect the state’s Republican leadership had on North Carolina’s national image, and plan to vote Democrat up and down the ticket.

Some Ross allies believe that attitude could make Ross’s ACLU record more of an asset than a liability.

“North Carolina is ground zero for things like the bathroom bill and the fight for voting rights, and the ACLU there has been a leader for a long time on those issues,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for the liberal group Democracy for America.

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