Will ‘bull’s-eye’ comment hurt Sen. Richard Burr’s re-election chances?

U.S. Senator Richard Burr answers a question during a interview, after speaking at the Kannapolis Rotary Club in Kannapolis, NC on April 7, 2015
U.S. Senator Richard Burr answers a question during a interview, after speaking at the Kannapolis Rotary Club in Kannapolis, NC on April 7, 2015 dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Sen. Richard Burr’s joke about a “bull’s-eye” on a photo of Hillary Clinton is unlikely to help win over undecided voters – but it’s unclear if it has the potential to cost him re-election.

Burr is facing criticism for remarks he made to Republicans meeting privately in Mooresville. A recording of the event posted online includes Burr saying he was “a little bit shocked that (an NRA magazine featuring Hillary Clinton on the cover) didn’t have a bull’s-eye on it.” He also told the group that if Clinton wins, he’d block her Supreme Court nominees for four years.

Burr apologized for the bull’s-eye comment and walked back his Supreme Court promise. But Democrats seized on the tape and spent Tuesday tying Burr’s rhetoric to presidential candidate Donald Trump, whom the senator supports.

“If I told you that someone said a photo of Hillary should have ‘a bullseye on it,’ you might think it’s Donald Trump,” U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Charlotte Democrat, wrote in an email to supporters Tuesday. “It sure sounds like him. Instead, this time it’s Senator Richard Burr.”

Adams said she’s reminded of Trump’s comment in August that “Second Amendment people” could take action if Clinton nominated justices who might strip away their gun rights. “Comments that suggest violence as an appropriate course of action have no place in American politics,” Adams said.

Burr is locked in a tight re-election fight with Democrat Deborah Ross, a former state legislator from Raleigh. The race is attracting tens of millions of dollars in ad spending because a Ross victory could help Democrats take control of the Senate.

As of Tuesday, Burr had a 0.8 percentage point lead over Ross in the RealClearPolitics polling average, a lead that’s been shrinking in recent weeks.

Ross’ campaign declined to say if it’s planning any ads featuring Burr’s comment. But she issued a statement saying the senator was “out of line, and while he apologized, he should not have said it in the first place.”

Nearly 2 million people have already voted through absentee ballots and early voting sites.

“I think right now the electorate is pretty well baked,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. “The question is does this get used by the Ross campaign for mobilizing and energizing Democrats. ... It’s all about turnout at this point.”

Perry Woods, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant in Raleigh, says the recording could change how some voters view Burr.

“It undercuts the ‘I’m a not-scary conservative’ image he’s been cultivating this whole time,” Woods said, adding that previous Senate races have shifted in the final week of the campaign.

In 2014, most polls showed Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan leading Republican Thom Tillis through much of the race, but the margin tightened to a near-tie in the final weeks. Tillis ultimately won.

“It doesn’t take much to sway a close race,” Woods said. “Just ask Kay Hagan.”

Burr, however, has been in the Senate for 12 years, and Republican campaign consultant Alfredo Rodriguez says North Carolina voters aren’t likely to change their minds about the longtime politician.

“He’s served them well, they know his heart, they know his intentions, they know the good work he’s done on their behalf,” Rodriguez said.

Burr has fared better in most North Carolina polls than Trump, indicating that he’s more popular than his party’s presidential candidate.

Still, Burr’s apparent assumption that his closed-door remarks wouldn’t become public is a mistake that has hurt other politicians in the past.

“I would have thought Mitt Romney’s ‘47 percent’ (comment about the number of people who don’t pay federal income tax) four years ago would have taught every candidate that you don’t say something unless you want it played back to you,” Bitzer said.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter