After months of speculation and handwringing among Democrats, the party is finally fielding candidates to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr in 2016. The potential aspirants include state Rep. Duane Hall of Raleigh, former state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh, and Chris Rey, mayor of the Cumberland County town of Spring Lake.
Although capable individuals, none of them has a track record of winning competitive general elections. None has yet exhibited the ability to raise the large amount of money it will take to run a statewide campaign, although national Democrats are reportedly promising to send a lot of assistance to North Carolina to help the eventual party nominee.
I think it would be foolish for Burr not to take the 2016 campaign seriously. I also think Ross, in particular, has the potential to excite some of the state party’s donors and activists. But I still think it’s striking that no higher-profile Democrats have opted to run. North Carolina is a closely divided state. The seat is important to Democrats hoping to recapture the U.S. Senate next year.
So what’s going on? My opinion is that most North Carolina Democrats, and even many Democrats across the country, are far more interested in defeating Gov. Pat McCrory than they are in defeating Burr. They believe Attorney General Roy Cooper is the candidate most likely to accomplish that task. They are already planning to pour most of their resources into helping him. Knowing that, Democrats who might otherwise have run for Senate have concluded that it will be difficult to gain the attention and raise the funds necessary to win in 2016.
It’s not hard to explain why North Carolina Democrats are so focused on beating McCrory. They strongly disagree with the policy choices Republicans have been making over the past several years. Given the district maps and other institutional disadvantages, they hold out little hope of retaking either chamber of the General Assembly in 2016. Their only chance to combat GOP initiatives on taxes, spending, education, and other issues is to elect Cooper and hope he can get his vetoes sustained by a combination of unified Democrats and dissident Republicans.
There’s also the matter of patronage. Governors build organizations and parties in ways that senators can’t. Governors hire hundreds of people for political or high-level policy jobs. They appoint thousands of people to boards and commissions. Their administrations award contracts and make policy decisions that benefit some interest groups and harm others. Democrats have been in charge of this massive machine for most of the state’s history. They desperately want it back, particularly if they are politicos, lobbyists, high-level attorneys, or executives in industries whose prospects are significantly influenced by state action. By comparison, U.S. senators have fewer favors to offer (although some of them can be immensely valuable to particular individuals or businesses).
As for Democrats across the country, there are two motivations for wanting to beat Pat McCrory. One of them is that, thanks to the Moral Monday movement and the lavish media attention it’s received from left-leaning media outlets, many liberal donors and activists are nearly as exorcised by GOP rule in North Carolina as they are about GOP rule in places like Wisconsin and Michigan.
Another motivation is that among the governorships on the ballot in 2016, North Carolina is by far the largest prize in terms of population and status — and the only one where Democrats have a reasonable chance of picking up a Republican-held seat. (In the other two high-profile, competitive gubernatorial races in the cycle, in Missouri and West Virginia, Democrats will be defending open seats.) Republicans currently enjoy a 31-18-1 advantage in state governors. Democratic leaders are committed to recovering at least some of that lost ground next year. (They probably can’t do so in 2015, as the only highly competitive race appears to be for the governorship being vacated by Democrat Steve Beshear in Kentucky.)
Richard Burr has benefitted from good timing throughout his political career. His streak appears to be intact going into 2016.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.