When the United States Senator Richard Burr signaled during the 2016 election that it would be his last election, many observers expected a battle to replace him in the senate. But given a rise in partisanship, internal party divisions, and the aftermath of the 2020 election cycle, it is setting up to be an even more challenging race than thought. And, the filing doesn’t even close for another eight months.
How did we get here?
As the senior Senator for North Carolina, Richard Burr carries a deserved amount of sway. While Republicans held the majority, he had the powerful position as chair of the Senate Committee on Intelligence. But after almost twenty-seven years of service in Washington, during the 2016 election, Senator Burr signaled that if elected, it would be his last term.
While this decision was understandable given the length of his service, it is almost certain that the Senator couldn’t have predicted the firestorm that was to come. Neither his party nor the country’s political landscape is in the same place five years later.
Who will be on the ballot?
Though rumbles have persisted for many years regarding who the heir apparent to Senator Burr would be, no frontrunner ever emerged for either party. North Carolina Republicans had not faced an open Senate primary since 2014 when Senator Thom Tillis emerged from an uncompetitive field.
Democrats, on the other hand, have sought to regain a seat for their party since former Senator Kay Hagan lost to Tillis in 2014. For months, names have been bandied about from both parties, ranging from sitting elected officials like Members of Congress, General Assembly members, and even Governor Roy Cooper to former elected officials, business leaders, and party glitterati. But, no consensus, even as notable figures begin to announce.
This week, the most recognizable rumored name became a reality when former Republican Governor Pat McCrory announced his intent to seek the seat. McCrory joins former Congressman Mark Walker as those with high name recognition who have thrown their name in the ring. The proverbial elephant in the room for Republicans in this race is the rumored interest of former President Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara, a North Carolina native.
On the Democratic side, former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court Cheri Beasley, state Senator Jeff Jackson, and former state Senator Erica Smith announced their intentions.
Is this election just about the people in the race?
As the months have turned over, bringing us closer to the 2022 election, the electoral landscape has become fraught as a result of the rise of partisanship, the changing directions of each party, an excessive number of interested persons, and more that is being realized as the days go on.
To date, both parties have begun populating their potential primary lists with a veritable pantheon of potential candidates. While none are official (i.e., they have not filed the paperwork to appear on the ballot), they have all begun to lob bombs at one another, challenging their respective allegiances to the party’s focus at that given time. The right amount of conservatism or progressivism has already begun to be litigated in the court of public opinion.
It remains unclear as to who will still be standing when the dust settles after the primary. But what is clear is that the 2022 US Senate primary in North Carolina will be a watershed moment for the party in the state and across the nation.
And what about the money? North Carolina is just one election cycle removed from the $220 million US Senate race between Senator Tillis and challenger Cal Cunningham. Pair that with the almost $800 million spent across both Georgia Senate races, it is expected that this race will likely exceed that mark.
Why is this race so important?
North Carolina has become an increasingly critical state in the national political landscape due to its rapidly-growing population, especially in urban areas. Becoming a “purple state” has led to outsized interest from outside political monies. But why is this race on pace to be so competitive and costly? One word: BALANCE.
Today, the United States Senate sits at a 50-50 partisan split, governed by an organizational arrangement between the chamber’s leadership. On contentious issues, Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, is called in to break ties. So, this and other elections during the 2022 cycle are pivotal for both parties to expand or regain control.
Unfortunately, setting up to be one of the most competitive elections got a little bit harder. Though the 2020 Census was completed amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, its results are facing a likely significant delay. With states not receiving the data until late summer, it is highly possible that mandatory redistricting will not occur in time to meet North Carolina’s March 2022 primary date. No decisions have been made yet, but that ambiguity will likely lead to more consternation.
So here’s to watching the Tarheel Turmoil and its aftermath for the state, the nation, and our political future.
Seth Palmer graduate of North Carolina State University with a BA in Political Science. He has been recognized with numerous fellowships, including NLC North Carolina, the Truman National Security Project, and the NC Institute of Political Leadership. He regularly presents on advocacy, lobbying, and communications topics and currently serves as a faculty member of the NC Institute of Political Leadership. Mr. Palmer is a seasoned public affairs professional with a passion for communications. For more than a decade, he has used his skills and experience to translate engagement into action for public and private sector entities. He currently serves as the Director of Strategic Communications for NP Strategy, a strategic communications firm with North and South Carolina operations. He also serves as Founder and CEO of Longleaf Public Affairs, a communications training and advisory firm. Seth spends his free time with his wife and their daughter while continuing his quest to start his own barbecue sauce company.