U.S. Sen. Richard Burr’s 268,105-vote margin of victory likely came down to North Carolina voters rejecting his opponent’s record as a lobbyist and realizing personal financial burdens under Obamacare, conservative political voices say about Tuesday’s race.
Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, hit his Democratic challenger Deborah Ross hard on issues related to her time as an attorney, lobbyist and executive director at the American Civil Liberties Union North Carolina chapter. TV attack ads zeroed in on her initial opposition to a public sex offender registry and her opposition to banning flag burning, on the basis of free speech.
“All of our research clearly showed that Deborah Ross – with the ACLU – (would see support) collapse, even with some traditional Democratic supporters,” said Burr’s campaign consultant Paul Shumaker, a veteran Republican strategist in North Carolina. “Our race was a very simple race: Make sure that voters knew the ACLU history.”
Painting Ross as too liberal was a winning strategy boosted by a late-in-the-campaign revelation that President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act, would hit North Carolinians in the wallet, says Donald Bryson, state director for Americans For Prosperity in North Carolina, a tea party-inspired group that wants fewer government regulations and a simpler tax code.
“Obamacare just created a perfect storm,” Bryson said Wednesday.
Obamacare participants across the country face double-digit insurance premium increases. In North Carolina, just one insurer covers all 100 counties in the state’s health-care marketplace. That news severely damaged Democrats’ brand, and Ross supported Obama’s plan, Bryson said.
With that issue, and others, Americans for Prosperity mobilized hundreds of volunteers in North Carolina. Over a two-month period, they knocked on 120,000 potential-voter doors and called 1.2 million people with an anti-Ross message, he said.
“Our ground game was 100 percent focused on the Senate race,” Bryson said.
Still, some say Burr’s six-point race could have been easier.
“The senator got a late start,” said Marc Rotterman, a Republican consultant and host of Front Row, a PBS political talk show. Rotterman has worked for past Burr campaigns.
Had Burr’s campaign done better “defining” Ross two or three months earlier than it did, Rotterman says, the incumbent likely would have had a smoother victory march. Ross, a former state lawmaker from Raleigh, launched her first statewide campaign last October and had support from outside groups such as Emily’s List, which backs women who support abortion rights, and national Democratic fundraising organizations.
Still, “it’s very hard to outwork Burr,” Rotterman said. “He’s personable and approachable. He drives himself to events. I’ve seen him just stop at the side of the road and go over and talk to a tobacco farmer.”
Burr’s supporters said he shined in his final re-election bid before retiring from office. He posted the widest win of any Republican at the top of the ticket in North Carolina despite his late campaign start and having to navigate a turbulent – but ultimately successful – election year for the Republican Party under President-elect Donald Trump’s nontraditional campaign approach.
Burr’s political calculation to endorse Trump, while occasionally condemning his more offensive comments, seems to have paid off. Other vulnerable senators – like Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Joe Heck of Nevada – didn’t fully back Trump, “and it cost them,” Rotterman said.
“What you have now is the Trump factor in the Republican Party, and it’s a realignment. It’s a populist party,” Rotterman said.
Burr was also helped by the Senate Leadership Fund and the National Republican Senatorial Committee – national GOP groups that supported Burr with campaign resources, staff on the ground and anti-Ross attack ads.