Low profile. Behind the scenes. Policy wonk – those are the descriptions that stuck to Republican Richard Burr for most of his 21 years in Congress.
Now 60 and running for a third term in the U.S. Senate, the lawmaker from Winston-Salem still gets more excited about policy than politics. And even amid all the Washington gridlock, he’s still finding ways to get major bills passed and signed into law.
But his days of “Richard who?” appear to be over.
As chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – a job he got when Republicans took control of the upper chamber in 2015 – Burr is at the center of the international focus on ISIS and home-grown terrorism. He’s showing up in national newspapers and on CNN, Fox News, and the Sunday TV talk shows. And in December, he wrote an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal about another issue at the top of the news: Encrypted cellphones and other devices that Burr says enable terrorists and others to hide what they’re saying and doing from investigators.
Several big-name N.C. Democrats chose not to run against Burr in this election year. But at a time when the Republican Party is embroiled in an internal ideological fight over its future, three challengers who question Burr’s conservatism have filed to try to unseat him in the March 15 GOP primary.
In Washington, North Carolina’s senior senator sits on committees that deal with taxes, health care and education. But it’s his leadership of the Intelligence panel that soaks up most of his time.
“The majority of every day is consumed in reading the overnight intel reports (and) meeting with foreign leaders – from presidents to chiefs of their intelligence community,” Burr said in an interview this week. “After 9/11, it was a plot here or a plot there. Now the (credible threats) are probably emanating from five or six terrorist groups in 17 different countries targeted globally on any given day in multiple locations. The sheer volume of it is almost overwhelming.”
Leading Congress watcher Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, called the Intelligence committee “quite high-profile” and said it requires a judicious chairman who can earn the trust of senators from both parties by not, for example, playing political games with vital national security issues.
So far, Burr appears to fit the bill, said Ornstein, co-author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.”
“You don’t have people referring to Burr as a lightweight or a show-horse,” he said. “People see him as a serious person interested in policy.”
From his perch as chairman, Burr has emerged as a sometime critic of the Obama administration on issues involving the terror threat. “The president and this administration have no strategy whatsoever as it relates to ISIS,” charged Burr, who has said he would not rule out U.S. ground troops or anything else that “is needed to eliminate the threat.”
Burr’s profile has also been rising because this former football player at Wake Forest University has been more willing in recent years to publicly butt heads – and not just with the Democratic president.
In 2014, Burr made headlines when he released a letter just before Memorial Day that castigated leaders of several veterans groups for not calling for the ouster of then-Veterans secretary Eric Shinseki amid the scandal of lengthy wait times for veterans at hospitals. Burr accused the leaders of being “more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are in the needs of their own members.” The head of the VFW hit back, calling Burr’s attack “dishonorable and grossly inappropriate.” But Shinseki resigned days later.
Even more widely quoted was Burr’s condemnation, in 2013, of talk by Tea Party-aligned members of Congress – including Sen. Ted Cruz, now running for president – to shut down the federal government over Obama’s Affordable Care Act. That strategy, Burr said, was “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
Burr’s comment, quoted on the floor of the Senate by Democratic leader Harry Reid, infuriated far-right Republicans. They now consider Burr a go-along insider and member of the “Washington cartel” – in the words of Dr. Greg Brannon, one of Burr’s three challengers in the March 15 GOP primary.
Brannon and others point to Burr’s score of just 45 percent with Heritage Action for America, a group that’s affiliated with a Washington-based conservative think tank and counts selected Senate and House votes key to supporters of anti-establishment Republicans such as Cruz, who scored 100 percent.
Burr dismissed Heritage’s scoring as rigged to help insurgent GOP challengers around the country. He prefers his 88 percent score in 2014 from the American Conservative Union.
The senator, whose pre-congressional career was in sales, also continues to be a favorite of business interests. His latest score from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was 100 percent. And at a single Washington fundraiser in January 2015, Burr raised $1 million.
Then there’s his 100 percent score from the socially conservative Family Research Council and his zero score from the liberal ACLU.
“Until this year, my conservatism has never been questioned,” Burr said. “I feel very comfortable with the record I have.”
He said he’s voted against Obamacare 40 times and even crafted legislative alternatives to the Affordable Care Act that could potentially be turned into law if a Republican president and GOP Congress are elected in November.
Looking ahead to the election, Burr still has work to do back home, where many newcomers to North Carolina don’t yet know him and where his voter approval numbers in one poll were in the 30s. And a raucous GOP presidential race may end with a nominee that could hurt down-ballot candidates or threaten Republican control of the U.S. Senate.
Still, Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a non-partisan newsletter covering House and Senate campaigns, said Burr starts the year as a “clear favorite” to win his re-election bid.
“I have underestimated him in the past,” Rothenberg said of Burr. “But he’s smart, understands politics and can raise money. ... And he really thinks things through.”
Education: B.A., Wake Forest University, 1978
Professional experience: National sales manager for Carswell Distributing, 1978-94
Political resume: U.S. House, 1995-2005; U.S. Senate, 2005-present
Family: Wife Brooke and two adult sons, William and Tyler
Website: www.burr.senate.gov (his Senate office) and action.burrforsenate.com (his campaign)