Raleigh, N.C. — Change.
They keep using that word, but does it mean what they think it means?
"People are very, very excited about this election and having their voices heard," said Deborah Ross, a Democrat and former state lawmaker who is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. "I think they're in a mood for a change."
Burr, too, said he had heard the call for change – in the White House, with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
"I look forward to new leadership. But unfortunately, this election seems to be in coming down to a third term of the Obama administration or change," Burr said.
He added voters he has met while traveling the state "want change, and they want it bad."
The question for Burr and Ross is what kind of change voters have in mind when they mark their ballots, where the U.S. Senate campaign sits just under the choices for president.
Ross is working to paint Burr as a Washington, D.C., insider who, after serving 10 years in the U.S. House and two terms in the Senate, has become part of a GOP-controlled Congress that has grown sclerotic with opposition to President Barack Obama. Burr, for his part, slams Ross as a too-liberal former ACLU lobbyist who would not be an effective check on a potential Hillary Clinton presidency.
"Change is some part of Trump's appeal, but it doesn't seem to be the overwhelming message of the year," said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
Ross' bid to be a change candidate is obvious since she's running against an incumbent. But Burr may have "a more credible" claim to a change message than a typical incumbent, Taylor said, if only because voters don't know a lot about him.
"It's clear, given the level of voter discontent, frustration and anger, that it's natural for every candidate to want to characterize themselves as expressing the expressed desire for change," said Joe Stewart, executive director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, a group that monitors political campaigns on behalf of businesses interests.
The question, he said, is what voters mean by change.
Burr, 60, spoke to WRAL News roughly a month before Election Day, while Ross, 53, spoke with a week to go until Nov. 8. WRAL News also interviewed Sean Haugh, the Libertarian running for U.S. Senate who trails far behind the two leading candidates.
Campaign battle informed by time in office
As of Oct. 25, more than $22 million had been spent on broadcast advertising in the race by candidates and their allies, according to data provided to WRAL News by Kantar Media, with expectations for that final number to land somewhere around $40 million by the end of the campaign.
It wasn't supposed to be this much of a dogfight. Early on in the campaign, national analysts wrote off North Carolina as a Burr win. But Trump's lackluster run – he's consistently trailed in North Carolina polling – combined with a late infusion of cash from national campaigns have put the state within striking district for Ross.
"It tends not to be good for Republicans in North Carolina if their presidential candidate is in a knockdown, drag out fight for our electoral votes," Taylor said.
In most election years, the two campaigns are joined at the hip. You have to go back to 1968 to find an election where Tar Heels gave electoral votes to a presidential candidate from one party and elected a senator from the other. But Burr has for all but a short period of time run ahead of Ross in the Real Clear Politics polling average, an indication that, however the state votes for president, Burr will likely out-perform Trump.
As they have for much of the campaign, Ross and Burr are trading barbs over their professional records. Ross' most recent attack points to special-interest-funded trips Burr took to Europe, while Burr continues to criticize Ross' work to shape legislation restricting the rights of sex offenders.
Neither shied away from using those respective lines of attacks when they sat down for interviews with WRAL News.
"I think the race is about jobs and the economy," Burr said of Ross. "I think it's about national security. I'd love nothing more to get this over on the issues, because when you look at who I'm running against, there's a big difference between how she says she voted and everything she says up to that point. And I think she's always taken the side of protecting criminals and predators and not the side of the victims."
Ross, in turn, said Burr has "forgotten who sent him to Congress," pointing to recent congressional pay increases. Asked whether she would decline such pay increases, Ross said congressional pay by itself isn't the problem.
"I think it's perfectly fine that somebody who has been in a job for more than 20 years gets a pay increase," she said. "But don't then turn around and be against raising the minimum wage. ... That is the difference. It is not about whether you vote to increase pay. It's what you do for the people who serve as well. That's the dichotomy. That's the problem."
Both are described as hard-working by those who have served with them at the state legislature and in Congress, but exactly what they've worked toward is a matter of ideological perspective.
"Deborah is extremely intelligent, remarkably articulate, but overwhelmingly ideologically driven," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who served with Ross both when she headed one of the state House's judiciary committees and when she was a member of the minority party. "She definitely pushes the envelope. She is not in any way, shape or form a moderate."
Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, also served with Ross and for a while represented a neighboring district. When Republicans redrew legislative maps to put Ross and Martin in the same district, he stepped aside rather than face off in a primary.
"I am under no illusion they were trying to get rid of me," Martin said. "Deborah was such an effective legislator, they were trying to get rid of her."
Ross won re-election but later resigned to become general counsel for the Go Triangle public transit organization. Martin was then appointed to take her place. He insists that, despite Ross' reputation as a tribune of the political left, "she had no problem working with Republicans when it was in the interest of her constituents."
Martin, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, said that Ross fit a compliment that soldiers in the service bestow upon those they admire: "She's tough as nails and tough as woodpecker lips. That's something I want in my U.S. senator."
Policy differences on display
As he pulled up to a early voting location near Cornelius, outside of Charlotte, Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis called his working relationship with Burr "productive," adding that the two often meet together with groups seeking help on federal legislation.
"He's very strategic and very well thought of on both sides of the aisle," Tillis said, pointing to Burr's work on behalf of families affected by tainted water at Camp Lejeune and his advocacy for the federal Clean Water Management Trust Fund as examples of Burr putting his clout to work for the state.
Tillis has served with both Burr and Ross. He was a lawmaker when Ross was part of the state House's leadership and served as state House speaker when Republicans took control following the 2010 elections.
"The biggest distinction between the two of them I've seen is that Richard can point to a pretty long list of bipartisan accomplishments," Tillis said. "Deborah never really struck me as being interested in bipartisan, set-your-partisanship-aside solutions. I can't point to many instances where she's been willing to do that."
Ross insists that her record in the legislature is one that speaks to bipartisan compromise.
"I have served in the legislature when the Democrats were in charge, when the Republicans were in charge and when the House was evenly divided," she said. "During that time, more than 90 percent of the bills that I got passed had more than half of the Republicans voting for them. Even when I was in the minority, I got legislation through. So, I know how to work with the other side."
Whoever wins will likely find themselves at the center of a battle over judicial nominations following a high-profile stalemate over Obama's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The fact that the U.S. Senate will not even meet with President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court, and now (Republican U.S. Sen.) Ted Cruz is talking about holding up Supreme Court nominees after the presidential election, this is a violation of your oath of office," Ross said.
Burr was among the members of the Republican-held Senate who declined to hear the Judge Merrick Garland's nomination to the high court, saying that it was too close to the 2016 election.
"The American people deserve a voice in the nomination of the next Supreme Court justice," he said at the time. "This appointment could easily tip the balance of the court in a direction not supported by the American people as evidenced by 2014's election results giving Republicans both the Senate and House."
CNN Reported Monday that Burr said on a campaign stop he would "do everything I can do to make sure four years from now, we still got an opening on the Supreme Court" if Clinton were elected president.
In addition to providing different perspective on judicial nominees, Burr and Ross divide on a number of issues. Ross, for example, says she would have back the compromise immigration legislation from 2013 that would have provided a "path to citizenship" for some of those in the U.S. illegally. Burr said during the fall campaign's lone televised debate that he saw "no pathway I can support that provides amnesty to anyone who came here illegally."
Even where they agree, the two differ on approach. Both say, for example, that mounting student loan debt is a problem. Ross favors a plan to allow former students to refinance their high-interest-rate debt, while Burr emphasizes plans to make it easier to save for college going forward and points out he helped craft a bill to make student loan debt more affordable going forward.
Aside from their issue portfolios and partisan affiliations, both candidates are trying to sell personal biographies that speak to the ability to handle the job.
"My dad was a tough dad. He expected a lot from me," Ross recalled. "He didn't give me any breaks. I was the oldest and the only girl, and he just made sure I could handle anything that came my way. When I was growing up, I felt like, 'Why aren't you being nicer to me, Dad?' He prepared me for tough political campaigns. He prepared me for sticking up for what I think was right, in ways I can't thank him enough for."
Burr said this is his last campaign for Congress. In the meantime, he said, it's important for someone with a command of the complex world of national security to backstop whoever wins the presidency.
"I think I represent the values of North Carolinians. They know what they're getting when they vote for me. There's 22 years of history you can look at," Burr said.