Political Hay

A Burr in Their Saddle

Democrats have everything going for them in North Carolina -- except a candidate.

By 8.3.09

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Facing what could be a tough string of mid-term elections in 2010, Democrats are ramping up efforts to target weak Republican incumbents. U.S. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina is one of them.

Last year Burr's state broke for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in three decades. His Republican comrade in the Senate, Elizabeth Dole, lost handily to a liberal legislator the same year, and Democrats solidified their majority in the state's congressional delegation by unseating five-term Republican Robin Hayes.

To make matters worse, Burr's approval numbers are in the can, he's been the target of effective attack ads excoriating his panache for panicky ATM withdrawals, and polls show that many North Carolinians don't know who he is, despite his presence in the Senate for almost six years.

Democrats smell blood. Their Senatorial Campaign Committee has already launched a few mortar rounds in what is sure to be a down-and-dirty general election race. State-level party operators are gearing up, eager to put John Edwards' former Senate seat back in Democratic hands.

They only have one problem -- no candidate.

For months, the party faithful have sought a suitable challenger to face the weakened Burr, with disappointing results. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a favorite of party activists and the White House? No thanks. Congressman Heath Shuler, a former Redskins quarterback who upset a reliably Republican district in 2006? Maybe some other time. Congressman Mike McIntyre, a Blue Dog Democrat from the coast? Don't think so.

Several other Democrats haven't ruled out a bid to unseat Burr, but none have excited or galvanized the base, even a little. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall appears willing to take on the challenge, and might become the lead contender if no other candidates crop up. Her record on statewide elections for federal office is less than stellar, though.

The only other North Carolinians who have thrown their hats into the "maybe-will-run" ring are two no-name lawyers. Political prognosticators have to wonder -- given Burr's vulnerability, and North Carolina's plethora of elected officials who are Democrats -- whether this is the best the party can do.

Maybe it is. That has Democrats understandably annoyed. It's unclear why some of the more widely known names have declined to enter the race, especially in Cooper's case. Even before the attorney general gave a thumbs up or thumbs down to running, polls showed him dispatching Burr 41 percent to 37 percent -- devastating statistics for any incumbent, even at this early stage.

The charismatic Cooper is popular among the Democratic base. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, many North Carolinians view him as a tough-on-crime public servant and aggressive prosecutor of corruption, of which there is ample supply in North Carolina.

So why did Cooper brush aside a Senate bid? We'll never know for sure, but two possibilities come to mind. One is the heat Cooper has taken from Republicans, which has trickled into the wider electorate, for going soft on former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley. Easley is under state and federal investigation for alleged ethics violations and campaign finance malfeasance.

A second reason is a defamation lawsuit filed against Cooper nine years ago. The suit alleges that Cooper defamed his Republican challenger during a race for attorney general by airing a misleading television ad. A superior court judge recently denied Cooper's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, allowing the case to go to trial.

Had he chosen to mount a campaign for Senate, Cooper would have had to overcome both cases of unwanted baggage. He opted to avoid the challenge.

Why Shuler and McIntyre declined to run is clearer. They hail from conservative-leaning districts, and make a habit of parting company with party leaders on key votes (Shuler's support for cap-and-trade is one exception). But winning a congressional district is a different animal from winning a statewide Senate race. Polls show them losing to Burr by wide margins, so both decided to defend their House seats instead.

Needless to say, the dearth of candidates has become an increasing irritant for the Democratic Party base in North Carolina, which sees Burr as an easy target. More than one operative is pleading for more candidates to step forward.

The angst is justified. Election Day is 15 months away, but if Democrats don't find a suitable contender and get united soon, this competitive race won't be so competitive come November 2010.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.