Is Burr early favorite?

Published 7:47 am Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Staff Writer

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has a lead in the polls and a sizable fundraising advantage over his potential Democratic challengers.
Those points are prompting leading Democrats in the field to spotlight Burr’s record before their party chooses its nominee.
Some observers note that a lot of variables can come into play from now through November, meaning the incumbent might have to fend off a serious challenge at the polls.
Whatever the case, the Burr camp isn’t mincing words when given a chance to tie Democrats to policies it asserts are unpopular with voters.
“I believe the Democrats are trying to distract the American people from what’s really going on, passing a health-care bill that Americans didn’t want,” said Samantha Smith, a spokeswoman for the Burr campaign.
Smith was responding to a political question about Burr’s move to cancel a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee in protest of the health-care bill’s passage.
She referred further questions about the committee hearing to Burr’s Senate office.
With the fur flying in the Senate contest, polls are providing a snapshot of voters’ thinking about the race.
A March 17 news release from Public Policy Polling shows Burr with a 41-percent-to-36-percent lead over his closest possible competitor, Elaine Marshall, North Carolina’s Democratic secretary of state.
The other two Democratic front-runners are former state Sen. Cal Cunningham and Chapel Hill attorney Ken Lewis.
Six Democrats filed to run for this Senate seat, but the bottom three aren’t appearing on the polling radar.
Three Republican primary challengers filed to take on Burr, but the polls don’t suggest that they’re serious threats to the incumbent.
PPP polled 878 state voters from March 12 through March 15, the news release reads.
In a Monday interview, Tom Jensen, director of PPP, said the next Senate poll is due out in two weeks.
“Things have stayed very much the same” in this race over the past few months, he said, adding that Burr’s approval ratings have hovered in the 35- to 40-percent range for a year.
Recent polls have shown Burr leading the nearest Democrat by five to 12 points, Jensen said.
“I wouldn’t expect that to change until the summer at the earliest,” he commented.
On the fundraising front, Burr’s campaign committee had more than $4.3 million cash on hand at the end of the last campaign-reporting period, which closed on Dec. 31, 2009.
Burr has said he hopes to raise $15 million for his re-election bid, Smith confirmed.
Smith was asked why it would be necessary for Burr to raise such a large amount of money when he’s well ahead of his Democratic opponents in terms of fundraising.
In response, Smith pointed to the 2008 Senate election, when, she said, the Democratic Party and “other special-interest groups” poured millions into Kay Hagan’s successful race to unseat Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C.
“Once they secure the Democratic nomination, the national Democratic Party can pour in as much money as possible,” she said.
Smith alleged that national Democrats had even gotten behind one of the Democratic primary candidates — Cunningham.
“I don’t think they’ve officially endorsed him, but I believe they were instrumental in swaying him to run,” she said.
Angela Guyadeen, Cunningham’s communications director, offered this e-mailed response: “Senator Burr is going to need a lot more than just cash to explain to voters why he played partisan political games and shut down a committee hearing to discuss national security with high ranking military officials. Having spent nearly two decades standing up for special interests in Washington, we are pleased to see that Senator Burr can take notice of Cal’s message to create jobs and restore the economy for the people of North Carolina.”
Marshall’s campaign also weighed in on the money matter.
“Richard Burr wants to raise $15 million because he can,” said Thomas Mills, a consultant for Marshall. “He’s been in the pocket of special interest ever since he’s been in Washington.”
Asked for a perspective on Cunningham’s candidacy, Mills said, “I think (Cunningham) was encouraged by a bunch of Washington insiders to get into the race.”
Mills suggested the Marshall campaign isn’t paying much attention to the origins of Cunningham’s campaign.
“We’ve been steadily gaining momentum,” Mills said.
On yet another front, the Democrats in the field have been busy picking up high-profile endorsements.
On Monday, Cunningham’s campaign announced he’s been endorsed by retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former presidential candidate.
Cunningham is an Iraq war veteran.
Lewis has been endorsed by U.S. Reps. Mel Watt and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C.
Marshall has been endorsed by three national women’s groups, the (Raleigh) News &Observer has reported. One of those groups is the National Organization for Women, Mills said.
Marshall has also won the support of the largest black political caucus in the state, the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Mills related.