And just like that, the Democratic Party’s problems in 2016 become more obvious than ever. Republicans won the 2010 Senate sweepstakes, not by enough to take control of the upper chamber, but enough to leave their new majority at risk in the upcoming election. The GOP has to defend 23 seats to Democrats’ 10, and only have a margin of four seats for their majority. Democrats hoped to take advantage of the imbalance by competing in states Barack Obama won once or twice in his presidential campaigns, but North Carolina looks like it may be off the table:
While Hagan’s statewide name recognition and relatively strong performance in a year that saw Republicans sweep into the Senate majority would have made her a top challenger to Burr, a national Democratic strategist said there are plenty of Democrats who could win this seat, including Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, state Treasurer Janet Cowell, longtime University of North Carolina President Tom Ross, and State Senate Minority Whip Josh Stein.
Roll Call’s Rothenberg Report already shows North Carolina as a Leans Republican state for 2016. The retirement of Hagan from the potential field makes that case even stronger. It demonstrates, as National Journal’s Alex Roarty reports, a big problem in the state party, and leaves them with much worse options for an uphill climb against Burr (via Dan Doherty):
Democrats thought Hagan had the right mixture of experience and fundraising firepower to knock off Republican Sen. Richard Burr. With Hillary Clinton atop the ticket and more favorable turnout in a presidential election year, they figured she could overcome her own numbers and defeat an incumbent with middling approval ratings of his own.
And just as importantly, she had expressed serious interest in running. Others had not. …
Many of them are seen, at least within North Carolina, as unlikely to run for Senate. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, for instance, is considered by many party strategists to be the party’s strongest possible nominee. The African-American former mayor of Charlotte has the kind of star power to drive liberal turnout. But Foxx has announced publicly, and told Burr personally, that he won’t run for Senate. Josh Stein, another rising star, is considered highly unlikely to abandon his run for attorney general.
Roarty reviews a few other candidates as well, especially state treasurer Janet Cowell, who announced two months ago that she would run for re-election rather than federal office. Democrats are hoping that those who passed on the Senate under the assumption that Hagan was running will reconsider their position. Party strategists are trying to make lemonade out of a very big lemon with that thinking, though:
“If Kay had run, she would have started with higher name ID and higher negatives than Burr, which is not something normally seen from a challenger,” said one senior Democratic strategist.
Riiiiiiiight. If that were the case, why did Democrats try recruiting her at all? Hagan had experience, a track record of state-wide support, and presumably would have fit well into a Hillary Clinton campaign in North Carolina, a key swing state in the presidential election. That’s why Democrats want Cowell as an alternative, but for the moment, she’s staying put.
Why are leading Democrats reluctant to launch a bid for the Senate seat? There are potentially a couple of answers. Republicans won significant voting reforms in 2013 after taking control of the state legislature, the biggest of which were the elimination of straight-ticket voting, elimination of “preregistration” of 16-year-olds, and an end to state-funded voter registration drives. The removal of the checkbox for straight-ticket voting (a reform adopted by a Democrat-controlled New Hampshire legislature in 2007, too) means that voters have to select each candidate individually, and that they have to register on their own. The parties and outside groups will no doubt conduct large-scale registration drives too (although they can no longer pay based on number of registrations collected), but Democrats complained at the time that the end of straight-ticket voting disproportionately impacted their constituencies.
Those probably matter less than the absence of Barack Obama from the top of the ticket. Hagan won her seat in 2008 by four points, in conjunction with a narrower but historic win for Obama on the same ticket — thanks to a turnout model that so far seems unique to his candidacies. Already people are questioning whether Hillary Clinton can even come close to duplicating that kind of impact, and there are a number of reasons to be skeptical, not the least of which is that Hillary is the antithesis of the fresh, young, and forward-looking candidate with real talent for inspiring audiences on the stump. Obama narrowly lost North Carolina in 2012 even with the echoes of that enthusiasm still palpable, and 2016 looks much grimmer for Democrats up and down the ticket.
That doesn’t make Burr invulnerable, of course. His own approval numbers are hardly spectacular, nor his he the kind of inspirational candidate who can swamp out a credible Democratic challenger. If Republicans offer an inspirational presidential nominee who can draw a clear contrast with Hillary as the candidate of the future rather than the past, though, Burr may end up with an easy ride in North Carolina. That’s probably why Democrats like Hagan et al are not enthusiastic about challenging for the seat.
One more point should be kept in mind, too. The general election is less than 17 months away, and Democrats don’t even have primary candidates in the field or building organizations. For a Senate race, that’s an utter disaster.