Is N.C. Sen. Burr (R) Vulnerable? Depends On Who You Ask : It's All Politics Democrats insist Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) is vulnerable in November. But first, they have to pick a nominee in the May 4 primary.
NPR logo Is N.C. Sen. Burr (R) Vulnerable? Depends On Who You Ask

Is N.C. Sen. Burr (R) Vulnerable? Depends On Who You Ask

For the longest time, any list of vulnerable Senate incumbents up in 2010 has included that of Richard Burr.

The North Carolina Republican, first elected six years ago with 52 percent of the vote, has a reliably conservative voting record but has not left a strong impression with voters. Democrats insist that state politics has been turning blue, pointing to the 2008 results where Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since Jimmy Carter in '76, and the victory by the heretofore unknown Kay Hagan over GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole, as well as the win in the gubernatorial contest by Bev Perdue.

But 2008 is a far cry from the present, where Perdue has been getting subpar job approval ratings and has been questioned about her campaign finances, and where investigations into the activities of former Gov. Mike Easley (D) and his aides have been producing embarrassing headlines; the latest is 57 corruption counts leveled against Ruffin Poole, a former top Easley aide, including tax evasion. Previously, investigators were looking into the charge that Easley used campaign money to make repairs at his home.

Some suggest that if the presidential election were held today, Obama, who carried the Tar Heel State by 14,000 vote, would not duplicate his 2008 success. But it's Burr who's up this year, and Democrats are trying to decide which candidate to support against him in the May 4 primary.

The most familiar name is Elaine Marshall, the four-term secretary of state. The first woman elected statewide in North Carolina — in 1996 she defeated legendary NASCAR driver Richard Petty in a highly publicized campaign — Marshall ran for the Senate once before, losing the 2002 primary to Erskine Bowles. Today she picked up the endorsement of former Sen. Robert Morgan and recently won the support of the National Women's Political Caucus and the Black Political Caucus; the latter is the largest African-American political organization in the state. There have been concerns, however, about her ability to raise campaign money.

Also running is Ken Lewis, an attorney and African-American who has picked up the backing of many black political figures in the state, including Reps. Mel Watt and G.K. Butterfield. Lewis, the grandson of slaves, was Obama's N.C. finance director two years ago.

But the favorite, at least among some Democrats in Washington, seems to be Cal Cunningham, an attorney and former one-term state senator who served in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star. Democrats in NC and DC have told me they think Cunningham would be the strongest candidate against Burr. Cunningham had long insisted that he wouldn't run, but when Rep. Bob Etheridge and others turned down Dem pleas to get into the race, he reconsidered. This week he was endorsed by former NATO commander and presidential hopeful Wesley Clark.

Polls show Burr with leads over each Democrat in hypothetical trial runs. A huge black turnout, which propelled Obama, Hagan and Perdue to victory in '08, is vital for the Democrats to have a shot.

Current Rating: Republican favored.

Fun fact: Sam Ervin (D), in 1968, was the last incumbent re-elected for this seat. Since then, Robert Morgan (D) was defeated after one term in 1980, John East (R) retired in 1986, Terry Sanford (D) defeated in 1992, Lauch Faircloth (R) defeated in 1998, and John Edwards (D) retired in 2004.