One of the lessons in the aftermath of the U.S. Senate race is this: candidates matter. The GOP fielded a strong one, a two-term senator with a down home North Carolina demeanor and a powerful position as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Democrats fielded a kooky ultra-liberal who as former lobbyist of the state ACLU took a number of kooky positions that alienated voters.
For months, even as Deborah Ross picked up momentum, GOP strategists assured worried observers that once they shined a light on her ACLU record, Deborah Ross’s candidacy was finished. They were right.
Yet, for a brief time it appeared the strategists might have been wrong. After Burr’s campaign released the first ad attacking Ross for opposing the North Carolina Sex Offender Registry, Ross countered with a powerful ad of her own featuring the lead sponsor of the sex offender bill, Fountain Odom, who said that Ross helped strengthen the bill. When the dust cleared, it looked like Ross had survived. Republicans panicked.
But the Burr campaign was far from finished. The fact-checkers also went to work. They made clear that Ross had repeatedly raised “concerns” about the legislation, and took a number of positions where she put sex offenders first. This narrative – reinforced through television ad after television ad – was too much for one counter-ad to be effective. Voters were left with the (correct) impression that yes, Deborah Ross had a history of fighting for some very unsympathetic characters, from sex offenders to folks who wanted to burn the American flag.
In the end, the race wasn’t all that close. Burr won by 6 points, a larger margin than his first race against Erskine Bowles in 2004, and a landslide by North Carolina standards. Ross won the Democratic floor of 45%, winning the votes of blacks and liberals in the Research Triangle and Charlotte. She failed badly everywhere else.
This is not to say that Ross ran a bad campaign. In fact, she ran a very good campaign. But her work for the ACLU made her a very poor candidate. Maybe voters in California or Connecticut would have appreciated her left-wing politics, but North Carolinians rejected them.
For months, the DSCC tried and failed to recruit a number of potential challengers to Richard Burr. In a year like 2016 with a Republican wave crashing across the nation, it’s unlikely that any of them could’ve beaten Burr. But a winning race starts with a strong candidate, and Ross had too much baggage to make her one.
In the final analysis, the race was not won on Election Day, but in the recruiting process, when the DSCC inexplicably put their chips on Deborah Ross, despite warnings that her ACLU background made her unelectable. The DSCC should have heeded those warnings instead of going with a candidate radically out-of-step with North Carolina values.
John Wynne is the “conservative voice” at PoliticsNC, where he also provides polling analysis and commentary on legislative campaigns. When not writing about politics, he enjoys gardening and listening to opera. Contact: email@example.com.