With No Challenger, Burr's In No Trouble

With No Challenger, Burr's In No Trouble

By Kyle Trygstad - June 3, 2009

By any number of metrics, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr could be the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the country. His once Republican-leaning state looks rather blue after the 2008 elections, and recent polls show Burr anything but safe.

Still, Burr is likeable -- nothing like his distant relative, Vice President Aaron Burr -- and he lacks the kind of issues that doomed former senator Elizabeth Dole's re-election bid last year. Perhaps most important to the first-term senator's survival prospects, though, is that no top-tier Democrat has stepped forward to challenge him.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, who won a third term in November with more votes than any other statewide candidate, had been the party favorite but announced three weeks ago he wouldn't run.

"So far, the party has struck out with attracting a candidate who has already won state-wide office," said John Dinan, a political scientist at Wake Forest University. "Roy Cooper's decision against running last month was significant, as he would have been a strong challenger. But one would have to interpret his decision against running as a sign that he wasn't sufficiently confident that Burr was vulnerable to a successful challenge and that 2010 may not be the best year for a Democratic challenger to make such a bid."

Cooper led Burr in several polls conducted since the end of last year, as Burr's approval ratings hovered well below 50 percent. However, even a private chat at the White House with Obama, whose influence has been felt in other states, didn't change his mind.

Since Cooper's exit, the spotlight has re-centered on Rep. Heath Shuler, who the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is rumored to be focusing on. Shuler said in March that he would not challenge Burr, but David Young, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, stirred the pot recently when he said during a radio interview in Asheville that the DSCC was actively recruiting Shuler and that he believed the congressman was reconsidering a bid for Senate.

"The courting at least one or two candidates, and the one we all know is Congressman Heath Shuler," Young said on WPEK 880-AM. "They're talking to him very seriously, and I believe that Congressman Shuler is considering it again."

Young, though, admitted he had no inside knowledge regarding Shuler's decision making. When reached for comment, Andrew Whalen -- the state party executive director and a former congressional spokesman for Shuler -- re-emphasized that Young had not spoken to Shuler recently about running.

But even the Republicans' House campaign arm has begun recruiting candidates for the 11th Congressional District in anticipation that Shuler makes the jump. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported last week that two state lawmakers had been contacted by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Attributes in Shuler's favor are the ability to fundraise and his moderate voting record, said Hunter Bacot, director of the Elon University Poll. Shuler has been known to buck party leadership, including on the economic stimulus package, and National Journal's 2008 vote ratings place him among the most conservative Democrats in the House.

Bacot said Burr is "more of a business conservative, instead of a moral, which resonates with the people of North Carolina." He also attracts the large population of "business Republicans" that migrated to the state from the Northeast -- independent voters who Bacot said swing the state.

"To defeat Burr, you're going to need a conservative Democrat, and if you can get through a primary, you're going to give him a run for his money," Bacot said. "The majority of Democrats in North Carolina are moderate, and 25 percent are conservative Democrats -- Reagan Democrats -- who will vote Republican. Shuler can keep them home."

Matched up in a poll last week by Public Policy Polling, Burr led Shuler by 16 points, with 28 percent undecided. Despite his accomplishments on the football field as a Heisman Trophy runner-up at the University of Tennessee and his high-profile election to Congress in 2006, half of the poll's respondents still had no opinion of Shuler.

While Burr led all seven Democrats matched up against him in the poll, he never exceeded 50 percent, a key mark for incumbents. As Dinan notes, "North Carolina Senate races have been unfailingly competitive in the last three decades -- no candidate has exceeded 55 percent of the vote in over three decades of Senate races in the state."

Also troubling for Burr is the fact that eight of the 13 congressmen in the state are now Democrats, and Republicans lost the top five statewide races last year to President Obama, Sen. Kay Hagan, Gov. Bev Perdue, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and Cooper, the attorney general.

With Cooper no longer a roadblock for Shuler, the second-term congressman from a safe House district must decide how vulnerable Burr really is.

"There are no apparent ways in which Burr has rendered himself vulnerable in his first four years," said Dinan. "Unlike Dole, who was vulnerable because of not spending time in the state and not seen as working hard enough to represent North Carolina interests, Burr has no concerns on either of these counts. His main concern is that his name recognition isn't yet as high outside of the Piedmont area as an incumbent would prefer."

Stepping up his visibility, Burr is leading the fight this week against a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco, which is an important piece of the state's economy. He's also joined forces on a health care plan with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

Bacot said to expect Burr to become even more visible over the next year, and if Shuler runs, the state would likely have "a good battle on its hands." Should Shuler run, it would be the first time he wasn't the only college football star in the race -- Burr played at Wake Forest. That's just one of a few things Shuler's likely pondering.

"Shuler would be well-positioned ideologically to make a bid for state-wide office," Dinan said. "But in deciding whether to get in the race, Shuler will likely also come up against the same dynamics that Cooper considered before opting against a run."


Kyle Trygstad is a Washington correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Email him at: Follow him on Twitter @KyleTrygstad.

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