When then-Congressman Richard Burr first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, he drew a tough Democratic opponent: former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.
Bowles, a respected businessman and son of prominent Democratic politician Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, had a stellar resume and a reputation for working across party lines. Although hardly a flashy candidate, Bowles had the potential for crossover appeal and significant name recognition from his unsuccessful but respectable Senate run two years earlier against Elizabeth Dole. Indeed, through the summer of 2004 and into late September, Bowles generally led Burr in the polls, sometimes by significant margins.
But then came the only broadcast debate between the two, on September 27. Burr clearly got the better of Bowles, who was uncomfortable in front of the camera and sounded more like a competent functionary than a strong leader. In the midst of the resulting wave of pro-Burr press coverage, the Burr campaign also unleashed an advertising blitz that emphasized the ties between Bowles and Bill Clinton, whose scandal-filled second term was still fresh in voters’ minds.
In the last few weeks of the 2004 campaign, the polls closed, and then began to tilt Richard Burr’s way. An average of the final eight publicly released surveys in the race put Burr two points ahead of Bowles. The Republican ended up winning by nearly five points.
Now, as we approach the conclusion of the 2016 Senate race between Burr and his Democratic challenger, Deborah Ross, the polls look strikingly similar. As of October 30, Burr has an average edge of two points, 46 percent to 44 percent, in the recent polls. He also has the momentum, having gained two points since September while Ross is up only one.
Of course, history has not quite repeated itself here. In 2004 Burr was on the ticket with George W. Bush, who would go on to win North Carolina easily. This year, he is on the ticket with Donald Trump, who may not win North Carolina at all. The issues and dynamics of the campaign are also different. But I do think that Burr’s ability to close well is a common denominator between the two contests.
Ross, a former state legislator from Raleigh, isn’t nearly as high-profile as Bowles. But she is smart, diligent, and has raised a lot of money. She has presented a real threat to Burr. In response, the Burr campaign and other groups have seized on her record as head of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, where she defended a number of unpopular causes, as well as her record in the General Assembly.
For example, state Rep. Ross was a strong champion of a tax-credit program intended to encourage the preservation of historic buildings. It turns out that she and her husband qualified for $267,000 in tax credits from the program for properties they owned. Pressed to released her tax returns to show how much she claimed, and whether the credits substantially reduced or wiped out her state tax liability, Ross refused. She also voted repeatedly to raise North Carolina’s sales tax, perhaps a reliable indicator of how she’d vote on tax and budget issues in Washington.
Just as in 2004, Burr outperformed his opponent in the only televised debate of the 2016 cycle, which was broadcast on October 13. Ross faltered at the start and never fully recovered. Burr restated clearly and convincingly his campaign themes — such as his advocacy of tax and regulatory reform to boost job creation, his role as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in combatting the terrorist threat, and his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and sponsorship of the major Republican alternative (which relies more on tax credits and consumer choice than Obamacare-like regulations).
The Senate race remains competitive. But if Richard Burr ends up on top — in a campaign that he has announced to be the last one of his political career — he will have demonstrated once more his ability to close well.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.