Former state Rep. Deborah Ross defeated three lesser-known opponents in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, while incumbent Sen. Richard Burr easily held off three challengers on the Republican side.
Burr had 61 percent, well above his nearest challenger, Greg Brannon, who had 25 percent. Paul Wright and Larry Holmquist trailed with 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
Ross won with 62 percent of the Democratic vote, with Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey polling a distant second with 16 percent. Durham businessman Kevin Griffin had 12 percent, and Greenville Army veteran Ernest Reeves had 9 percent.
In her victory speech at N.C. Democratic Party headquarters in Raleigh, Ross took aim at Burr, whom she blamed for cutting Social Security and Medicare funding.
“These aren’t North Carolina’s values,” she said. “We’re not a state that puts the powerful before the people. ... With your support, we’re going to win this thing.”
Ross also highlighted the main themes of her campaign. “As your senator, I will work every day to make sure – no matter who you are, or where you’re from – if you work hard and play by the rules, then you’ll have the security and the opportunity to find a job that pays a fair wage, go to college, afford housing and save for retirement,” she said.
Since 2015, Burr has had a high profile in Washington as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He frequently appears on political TV talk shows.
Burr said in a news release Tuesday night that he’s looking forward to the general election.
“Now that the primary is behind us, it is crucial that all Republicans unite in support of a more prosperous and secure future for all Americans,” he said. “We must move forward with a commitment to ensure Americans are safe and secure, while reducing the size and cost of government. The fall campaign will highlight the clear choice our state will have in helping chart the course of our nation’s future.”
TV ads for Burr have highlighted his expertise on national security matters, with a narrator saying that he’s “fighting for the intelligence and tools needed to protect America.”
In the Republican primary, Burr’s strongest challenge came from Brannon, a Cary obstetrician who came in second in the 2014 GOP Senate primary behind eventual winner Thom Tillis.
Brannon also sought the outsider mantle and courted supporters of presidential candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. But he struggled to compete with Burr’s massive fundraising advantage – something he often mentioned in his email pleas to potential donors.
“I’m in deep trouble,” Brannon wrote to supporters on March 7. “My 20-year insider opponent just dropped over half a MILLION dollars for advertising air time. The establishment’s attack dogs are preparing to rip me to shreds.”
Brannon was able to fund a series of radio ads critical of Burr, while Burr was able to afford TV commercials. In a concession speech Tuesday night in Cary, Brannon said “the establishment” is a “very, very tough foe.”
“Being a non-politician is why this (loss) doesn’t hurt,” he told supporters. “It’s not my life. We knew going up against Sen. Burr would be very difficult. I’m optimistic because we came out of nowhere and got 25 percent.”
Two other Republicans, Wright and Holmquist, ran low-profile campaigns. Wright is a longtime judge from Wayne County, and Holmquist used to run an advertising company.
On the Democratic side, party leaders initially struggled to recruit a strong challenger to Burr.
Former Sen. Kay Hagan, who lost to Thom Tillis in 2014, said she wouldn’t run. U.S. Secretary of Transportation and former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx also opted out of a campaign.
Ross’ name didn’t come up in the initial speculation last summer about possible candidates. But after she launched her campaign in October with a video posted to YouTube, she quickly became the party establishment’s preferred candidate.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed her, and so did Planned Parenthood and the National Education Association.
Ross is a Raleigh attorney who left her position at the regional transit agency GoTriangle to launch her campaign. She has said her time in the legislature makes her the party’s best shot at knocking off Burr.
Ross can rattle off a list of accomplishments that she pushed during her legislative career: an ethics reform bill; tax credits for historical preservation projects; a plan to sell state-owned historic houses along Blount Street in Raleigh; same-day voter registration at early voting sites; the new wing of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
Ross says her Senate campaign is centered on “economic security and opportunity for every generation.” But the N.C. Republican Party began criticizing Ross shortly after her primary victory, saying in a news release that she’s “too extreme for North Carolina.”
Ross’ three lesser-known opponents campaigned as outsiders, hoping to gain traction in a year of anti-establishment sentiment in both parties. Griffin and Rey even tied themselves to the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, with Griffin endorsing him.
Griffin and Rey repeatedly argued that Ross would lose to Burr because her legislative record would leave her vulnerable to attack ads. Reeves, the fourth Democrat in the race, ran a low-profile campaign without fundraising much or hiring staff.
Rey said Tuesday night that despite falling short, he’s proud of his campaign and its focus on income inequality and access to healthcare. Rey won in five high poverty counties in Eastern North Carolina.
“I heard their voices,” he said. “Poverty in North Carolina is real. At some point, we have to figure out how to bring everybody into the 21st century.”
Rey said he’ll likely seek higher office again in the future, ideally with a better fundraising infrastructure.
“This won’t be the last that the people of North Carolina will hear from me,” he said.
Kevin D. Griffin 11.72%
Ernest T. Reeves 9.41%
Chris Rey 16.49%
Deborah K. Ross 62.38%
2,709 of 2,709 precincts reporting
Greg Brannon 25.18%
Richard Burr (i) 61.41%
Larry Holmquist 4.94%
Paul Wright 8.48%
2,709 of 2,709 precincts reporting