Raleigh, N.C. — Few, if any, Democratic politicos will say that next year's U.S. Senate campaign against Republican Sen. Richard Burr will be a cakewalk, but some say that their party is about to miss an opportunity to at least push the veteran lawmaker.
"He's not a guy who's got a lot of people hating on him real bad, but he doesn't have a bunch of people who are loving on him either," said Thom Mills, a political consultant who helped manage North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall's 2010 campaign against Burr.
Even with an early primary for which candidate filing will begin in December, there hasn't been a wealth of well-known contenders lining up to challenge Burr. That may change in the coming weeks, but for the moment, the potential Democratic field is still sparse.
Burr, who served for a decade in the U.S. House and is finishing his second six-year term in the Senate, will surely be well-funded. As a chairman of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, he has a platform to talk about issues such as the conflict in Syria, the spread of ISIS and international affairs more broadly, issues that helped then-state House Speaker Thom Tillis unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014.
But polling results from both conservative and liberal firms don't paint him as a world beater. A recent poll by the conservative Civitas Institute showed Burr with a 25 percent approval rating among those asked if they had a "favorable" or "unfavorable" opinion of Burr, with 47 percent of respondents saying they had no opinion. Similarly, Public Policy Poling, which works for Democratic causes, found 29 percent of those surveyed approved of Burr's job performance, with 31 percent saying they were unsure.
At the same point in her 2013 re-election campaign, Hagan was polling better in both the PPP poll and a Civitas survey. A PPP poll from about the same point in the campaign season, for example, gave her a slight edge in favorability, with only 18 percent saying they had no opinion of her.
"Burr's an undefined character," Mills said.
Typically, low approval ratings and finding themselves "undefined" would spell trouble for a candidate. But as nebulous as Burr's character may or may not be for voters, even more uncertain is who might take him on next year for the Democrats.
Searching for a candidate
Hagan has declined to take on the campaign, as did former Charlotte mayor and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and State Treasurer Janet Cowell, leaving national Democrats to look for candidates with lesser-known profiles across the state.
So far, the only Democrat definitively in the race is Chris Rey, the mayor of Spring Lake. Rey, who did not return calls, is also an officer in the National Guard and director of a nonprofit that helps to coordinate care for uninsured people.
Rey played on that experience, and Burr's opposition to the Affordable Care Act, in a video he released recently.
"I have three jobs, and one of them wouldn't even be necessary if Richard Burr would do his," Rey says in his video.
State Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, and state Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, have been widely mentioned as candidates, as has former Wake County Rep. Deborah Ross.
"I feel extremely confident that Sen. Burr is getting a strong challenger," Hall said Friday.
He said he would be making a formal announcement Monday but strongly intimated that Ross' presence in the race was making him reconsider his participation.
"She was actually my mentor when I came to the General Assembly," he said.
By contrast, Ford said he was "actively processing" a potential run, saying that he would weigh the rigors of a campaign against the needs of faith and family, as well as the practical considerations involved in mounting a statewide campaign.
Ford said he had a "proven record of bipartisan cooperation" that he hoped to bring to the U.S. Senate. He pointed to bills reducing state regulations that he backed during this summer's legislative session as votes on which he bucked the Democratic line.
As for Ross, fundraisers and consultants say they expect her to formally declare her candidacy the week of Oct. 11, if not the following week. But when asked about her intentions, Ross was cautious, saying she wasn't ready to announce anything.
"All I can say is I'm putting together a team and an organization," said Ross, who left her job as general counsel at Triangle Transit earlier this month, a move many took as a sign she was moving toward a Senate bid.
Those who have worked with her think she'd be a good choice for the job.
"Anyone who knows her would agree that she's got the intelligence, the work ethic and the savvy to be a spectacular U.S. senator," said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, who has himself turned down entreaties to consider a run for U.S. Senate. "She's just one of the toughest people I've ever served with in any capacity. She's always up for a fight for what she believes is right."
Making appeals to the middle
Brad Crone, a veteran Democratic strategist, says he doesn't see national Democrats pouring the requisite money and time into the North Carolina Senate race, pointing to recent news coverage in which Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials pronounced themselves satisfied with their recruiting efforts.
"I don't think North Carolina will be a high priority for them the next time around," Crone said.
A DSCC spokeswoman insists Burr is vulnerable and that the party will find a candidate to push him.
"After 20 years in Washington voting against the best interests of North Carolina families, Richard Burr is vulnerable, and he will have to spend 2016 defending his votes to end Medicare as we know it, keep women from earning equal pay and make college more expensive," said Sadie Weiner, who worked for Hagan's campaign in 2014.
Of the potential challengers, Crone said Rey has the toughest jump to make from a mayor of a relatively small town to a statewide candidate.
"That's a tall mountain to climb," he said.
As for Ross, Crone pointed out she is a former state director for the American Civil Liberties Union, a free-speech advocacy organization often viewed as a liberal proxy by conservative voters.
"She will energize the the more liberal and African-American base of the Democratic Party," Crone said. "But she will have a more difficult time capturing unaffiliated voters and conservative Democrats."
Meanwhile Ford might appeal to more business-minded interests but may not have access to the same kind of ready fundraising base that Ross appears poised to tap, including backing from Emily's List, a group that supports pro-choice female Democratic candidates.
"You've got 85 percent of the state's voters living within the three major media markets," said Joe Stewart, an analyst and executive director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation.
That makes the ability to raise money crucial not just for the upcoming primary, but for the eventual campaign against Burr.
Even if the eventual nominee doesn't beat Burr, analysts say he or she could still help the Democratic Party's overall cause by pinning down Burr's resources in North Carolina.
"The main goal at this point for Democrats is to try to nominate a candidate who might force the national Republican Party and Republican-affiliated groups to at least pay some attention to the North Caroline Senate race rather than being able to focus all their resources on more competitive Senate races," John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University, said via email. "Even if Democrats can't make the Senate race semi-competitive, they might still look to the Senate nominee to perhaps boost turnout among key Democratic voter constituencies as a way of boosting Democratic prospects in North Carolina races that look to be more competitive, such as the governor's race and perhaps the presidential contest."
Of course, with more than a year to go before the general election, both Burr and his eventual Democratic challenger are headed into uncertain waters. Not only is next year's primary coming early on March 15 – two months ahead of North Carolina's typical election calendar – the state could be an important piece of the presidential campaign for the third cycle in a row.
Crone said the earlier primary could turn out to be a boon for candidates of all stripes who have more time to organize and raise money for the general election.
But with a presidential campaign headed toward the state, the rise of outside spending groups increasingly willing to dump millions of dollars into races, as well as a hard-fought gubernatorial campaign on tap, U.S. Senate candidates may be buffeted by forces beyond their control.
"For the Senate race candidates, it's their party's presidential candidate's commitment to the state that may make the biggest difference," Stewart said.