Richard Burr Beats Back Challenge In North Carolina

The Intelligence Committee chairman nearly lost to Deborah Ross, a former ACLU lawyer.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) speaks after attending a closed committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 17, 2015.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) speaks after attending a closed committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 17, 2015.

WASHINGTON ― North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R) has apparently survived an unexpectedly tough challenge at the polls on Tuesday, defeating Democratic former state Rep. Deborah Ross.

Burr didn’t expect much fight from Ross, who led the North Carolina ACLU for a decade. He got a slow start on his campaign, but is projected to hold on.

A loss by Burr, a Republican senator who defended CIA torture and chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, would have been one of the most remarkable stories of Election Day.

But the two-term incumbent ― who also served as one of Donald Trump’s national security advisers ― rode a strongly negative campaign to victory.

He tried repeatedly to use Ross’ progressive credentials against her, casting her as a “radical” and tying her to the sorts of unpopular, unpowerful defendants that the ACLU often defends.

Ross’ work to stop a life sentence for a 13-year-old mentally disabled African-American defendant was something Burr characterized as defense of a sex offender. He cast Ross’ defense of free speech as support for the Ku Klux Klan. He portrayed her concerns about sex offender registries ― including vigilantism and the unintended identification of sexually abused family members ― as helping predators.

That tack apparently succeeded with voters. But Burr had plenty of his own problems to run from. He had pledged to fight for term limits when he first ran, and ended up serving 24 years. News accounts revealed how he jetted around the globe with his wife at the expense of corporations and lobbyists. His reputation for not working very hard was reinforced by news that he missed most hearings while on the Armed Services Committee, many to attend fundraisers.

And late in the campaign, it came out that he jokingly said a bull’s-eye should be on Hillary Clinton’s photo on a hunting magazine. He apologized, but not before sparking outrage.

The outrage, though, does not appeared to have hurt. Some analysts also believed FBI Director James Comey’s re-opening of the Clinton email probe may have hurt Ross and other Democrats.

Burr’s return to the Senate ensures that Clinton will have at least one more senator who has publicly pledged to block her Supreme Court nominees permanently.

Democratic insiders can take one lesson from the race. In the conservative Tar Heel State, they nearly won by backing a strongly progressive candidate, even if she wasn’t their first choice. Former North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan turned the party down, as did Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. But Ross took the plunge. And unlike the recycled, bland candidates Democrats chose elsewhere, sh excited voters and nearly knocked off Burr. It’s a model Democrats might consider for the future.