Ross puts Burr on defensive in tightening US Senate race

US Senate candidate Deborah Ross speaks to a group in Winston-Salem. (photo by Jordan Green)

As the North Carolina Senate race tightens, national attention turns to Democrat Deborah Ross’ efforts to unseat incumbent Republican Richard Burr.

Deborah Ross, the Democratic candidate for US Senate, joked after a meeting with seniors at a branch library on the south side of Winston-Salem last week that there were more press people than voters in the room.

While many North Carolinians haven’t started paying attention to the Senate race, recent polls showing a tightening race, concerns about the erratic behavior of the GOP presidential nominee and the potential for a string of GOP losses that could swing control of the Senate have squarely focused attention Ross’ attempt to unseat Republican incumbent Richard Burr.

Ross’ Aug. 24 visit to the Southside branch library in Winston-Salem, where she spoke to a group of about 20 people, focused on Social Security and Medicare.

“I care about making sure that our seniors can retire with dignity,” Ross said. “More and more, particularly [for] women who are retiring, Social Security and Medicare is all they have. They didn’t get equal pay for equal work when they were working. Or they stayed home with their families, which was very important, but didn’t get a pension.”

Ross leveled criticism against her opponent for a 2012 plan he co-authored with former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn that would have privatized Medicare by giving recipients vouchers to shop for healthcare on the open market while raising the age of eligibility to 67. It’s a point that Ross has been hammering Burr on throughout the campaign.

Burr responded through a spokesperson by noting that he was awarded AARP’s Champion of the 50 Plus award in August. Burr said the plan he co-authored with Coburn would have preserved traditional Medicare while protecting seniors from high out-of-pocket costs and providing flexibility.

The session at the Southside Library gave Ross the opportunity to hear from voters. One woman suggested that the government stabilize Social Security by increase the cap on taxable earnings for Social Security above its current level of $118,500. Ross responded enthusiastically.

“Well, that is one of my proposals,” she said. “There’re two ways to get more money into Social Security. One way is to have the cutoff at a much higher level. The other thing is that there have been studies that show that people at higher incomes live longer, so they end up drawing from Social Security. So there’s a certain fairness in having them pay more in.”

A former state lawmaker with a crisp and upbeat manner, Ross represented an urban Wake County district in the state House from 2003 to 2013. She has been a visible presence on the campaign trail, with focused events like the one with seniors in Winston-Salem, while also meeting with college students to discuss controlling student debt. Her opponent had no scheduled campaign appearances last week and declined an interview request.

The candidate who has won the Senate seat currently occupied by Burr has consistently shared the same party as the presidential candidate who carried the state, going back to 1980 when Republican John East rode Ronald Reagan’s coattails to squeak past his opponent, 50 percent to 49.4 percent. The seat has been swapped between the two parties a couple times, with Democrats Terry Sanford and John Edwards winning it in 1986 and 1998 respectively. Burr won the seat in 2004, with 51.6 percent of the vote, when George W. Bush carried North Carolina and won a second term as president. Burr improved his margin to 54.8 percent during his 2010 reelection, a mid-term when Republican candidates were buoyed by the tea party wave.

This is a different election, with a polarizing Republican presidential nominee who some worry may be too brash for North Carolina’s more genteel brand of conservatism. Burr has expressed misgivings about Trump on numerous occasions, including his antagonism towards the family of fallen US Army Capt. Humayun Khan and his suggestion that a judge hearing a case involving Trump University should recuse himself because of his Mexican heritage. But Burr has also said that he supports Trump, and appeared at a rally with him in Winston-Salem in July while offering only the faintest praise.

The potential liability of the candidates at the top of the ticket could go both ways. Speaking to reporters after her Aug. 23 meeting with seniors in Winston-Salem, Ross criticized Clinton over the evolving scandal surrounding her practice of transferring official emails to a private server as secretary of state.

“I would tell Hillary Clinton to her face that she handled the emails the wrong way,” Ross said. “It was wrong. She said it was wrong. The mess needs to be cleaned up.”

The contrast between the Ross and Burr campaigns mirrors the presidential campaigns’ presence in North Carolina, a state where polls have given Clinton a slight or better advantage since early August. The Clinton campaign has unspooled a stream of announcements about surrogates talking up Clinton’s economic plans, a roundtable with Latino and women small business owners in Raleigh on Aug. 25, and US Rep. GK Butterfield and Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas promoting the plan’s the impact on rural North Carolina on Aug. 26, to name a few. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has primarily relied on appearances by running-mate Mike Pence in battleground states like North Carolina — he spoke in Winston-Salem on Tuesday — to drum up support.

Last week, the Democratic-aligned group announced plans to hire dozens of organizers in eight key battleground states, including North Carolina, as part of a United Against Hate campaign to block Trump’s path to the White House, and has endorsed Ross as part of an effort to give Democrats control of the Senate. But Ross and other Democrats are bracing themselves for national Republican groups to respond to the challenge. In fundraising email sent out to supporters on Aug. 27, the Ross campaign warned that the Koch brothers’ “mammoth field operation is already in North Carolina knocking on doors and passing out flyers thanking Governor [Pat] McCrory for opposing Medicaid expansion. It’s only a matter of time before they try to swoop in and save Burr by burying us with ads.”

While Trump has built his campaign around resentments and fears surrounding immigration, trade and terrorism, Burr’s public appearances have generally highlighted the role of corporations in providing jobs while appearing with workers to project a common touch — a campaign tack that wouldn’t have been out of place for centrist Democrats in North Carolina only five years ago.

“The economy is the number-one issue this year, and it continues to be the most sluggish recovery since the second World War, and it’s companies like Volvo Mack that are going to really lead us out of this downturn,” Burr told WXII during a stop at the company’s Greensboro facility on Aug. 8.

The visit initiated a spree of business and industry related appearances that culminated with Burr’s appearance at the Southeast Regional Aerospace Supplier and Advanced Manufacturing Summit at the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem on Aug. 17.

These events have fallen within the purview of Burr’s official duties as a sitting senator, but even as stealth campaigning they haven’t necessarily been welcomed by voters, as a slew of unkind comments on the senator’s Facebook page attest.

“Oh really… you can tell it’s election time,” one woman commented in response to a post about a visit to Industries for the Blind in Greensboro that highlighted the outfit’s role making equipment for the military.