During the fall campaign in North Carolina, the presidential and gubernatorial races captured most of the attention. That was understandable. But the reelection of Sen. Richard Burr deserves at least as much post-election attention, for two compelling reasons.
The first is political. Often underestimated during his decades in office, Burr has proven to be one of most successful North Carolina politicians of the modern era. After a decade representing a Triad-area district in the U.S. House of Representatives, Burr ran in 2004 for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by John Edwards, the Democratic nominee for vice president. His opponent, Erskine Bowles, was capable, well-funded, and well-known statewide after a 2002 Senate bid against Elizabeth Dole. Burr came from behind in the last weeks of the campaign to win 52 percent of the vote.
Burr’s first reelection bid, in 2010, wasn’t much of a challenge. But this year’s race was highly competitive. The Democratic nominee, former state legislator Deborah Ross, raised lots of money and received lots of outside help. As in 2004, Burr came on strong at the end of the campaign, winning 51 percent of the vote to 45 percent for Ross. (The Libertarian, perennial candidate Sean Haugh, got about four percent.)
How did Burr outperform Donald Trump in North Carolina? Well, the two Republicans got about the same percentage of the vote in suburban and rural areas. But Burr did better in urban counties such as Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, and Forsyth. (Pat McCrory, by the way, equaled Trump’s support in urban areas but didn’t get the same vote in the suburbs and rural areas that Burr and the president-elect received.)
Another way to see the difference is through an ideological lens. According to exit polls, both Burr and Trump got 83 percent of voters who identified themselves as conservatives. But Burr got more votes from moderates, and slightly fewer votes from liberals, than Trump received.
North Carolina tends to stage competitive contests for Senate. Of all the senators elected since 1972, in fact, only two — Burr and Jesse Helms — have served more than a single term. During the 2016 campaign, Burr announced that his coming third term will be his last.
That brings me to the second compelling reason why Burr deserves your close attention. Over the next six years, he will likely play a key role on two significant issues. In the fight against Islamist terrorism and other threats to our security and freedom, Burr’s service as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee will help shape America’s strategy. And as one of the two primary sponsors of the Senate Republicans’ most widely supported replacement for Obamacare, Burr will help write the next chapter in health care reform.
His Patient Choice, Affordability, Responsibility, and Empowerment (Patient CARE) legislation, introduced with Sen. Orrin Hatch, repeals the individual mandate and other major Obamacare provisions. In their place, Patient CARE offers tax credits for the purchase of private plans in a far less regulated market. Differences with the main House alternative, drafted by Speaker Paul Ryan and his team, include how to apportion the tax credits, how to approach gaps in insurance coverage, and how to clean up the Medicaid mess that Obamacare has made worse over the past six years.
Republicans nationwide have more electoral heft and policy influence today than they’ve had since the 1920s, with control of Congress, the White House, most state governments, and (within a few months) the U.S. Supreme Court. This didn’t happen overnight. It took many decades of work at such tasks as recruiting candidates, establishing organizations, building networks, and developing policy prescriptions that were both politically salable and practically useful.
Many of the people who did this work weren’t flashy media hounds. Like Richard Burr, they’ve kept a relatively low profile. The savviest among them also recognize that their recent successes will prove fleeting if they let it go to their heads. Their best political strategy at this point is to enact good public policy. Burr can help.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.