Politics & Government

Burr plans fight against ... (insert name here)

North Carolinians go the polls in about a year and a half to elect a president, a governor and a U.S. senator – a “triple play” election that last occurred in 2004.

Those races are all underway. Will it be Jeb Bush against Hillary Clinton? Gov. Pat McCrory against Attorney General Roy Cooper?

And current U.S. Sen. Richard Burr against ... well, who? There is no candidate yet on the Democratic side who is the clear challenger to Burr, a Republican.

All eyes remain on Kay Hagan, the one-term senator who lost a close re-election bid last year to then-House Speaker Thom Tillis. Hagan addressed the possibility of another run in a Boston radio interview this month: “I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no.” She is on a fellowship at Harvard University this semester.

Burr first joined the Senate after beating businessman Erskine Bowles in 2004. Burr won re-election over Secretary of State Elaine Marshall in 2010. He is already raising money, including a one-night, $1 million fundraising event early this year.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee plays a key role in recruiting his opponent. The DSCC is important because Senate races are nationalized and the committee will help raise millions to influence the outcome in a closely divided North Carolina. Officials there aren’t talking about who might run.

Paul Shumaker, the general counsel for Burr’s re-election campaign, said the Burr campaign is preparing for a fight.

“We are hearing that the DSCC is still trying to recruit former Senator Kay Hagan,” he said by email. “They have a list that includes State Treasurer Janet Cowell, former State Senator Cal Cunningham as well as many other Democratic members of the General Assembly. North Carolina is a competitive state. We always prepare to run aggressive campaigns regardless of the opponent or the election year trend.”

Scott Falmlen, a consultant who was executive director of the state Democratic Party from 1999 to 2005, said the DSCC is looking around even as Hagan “has not taken herself out of the running.”

He said Cowell, state Sen. Dan Blue and state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a former prosecutor, are likely in the mix.

Cowell did not return a call. Former five-term Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, who served on Raleigh’s City Council with Cowell, said her name comes up “every now and then” as a candidate for office higher than state treasurer.

But “I doubt she’s going to do it,” Meeker said.

Blue, the Democratic leader in the state Senate and former state House speaker, said he’s focused only on organizing state Senate races for 2016.

Jackson, who has used social media to build his profile beyond the state Senate, said he is expecting a baby soon and that “I haven’t even considered it.” He knows his name has come up.

For a long time, the race was seen as one in which Anthony Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor, would run. He’s now U.S. transportation secretary and expressing no interest.

Burr’s ratings indicate approval from about one-third of voters and disapproval from about one-third. Public Policy Polling says an approval in the 30s puts Burr in the “danger zone.”

Still, Burr is polling ahead of a short list of possible Democratic opponents. (Blue has not been listed among them). Of those polled, Hagan and Cowell trail Burr, but are the closest.

J. Andrew Curliss, Renee Schoof and Lynn Bonner contributed