Only one seat is at stake, but much more than that is on the line in the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina.
The Republican incumbent, Richard Burr, has held the seat since 2005. His Democratic challenger, Deborah Ross, was state legislator from 2003 to 2013 and head of the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from 1994 to 2002.
The race could well decide which party controls the Senate. Democrats need to flip four seats if Hillary Clinton wins, or five is she doesn’t. The website FiveThirtyEight ranks North Carolina as the race most likely to tip the Senate in either direction. Beyond that calculus, though, the contest is freighted with several years of struggle between progressives and a well-funded campaign by conservatives to transform the state into a testing ground for right-wing ideology.
In 2010, a wealthy Republican businessman and political donor, Art Pope, invested heavily in the state’s politics. With his help, Republicans took control of the state legislature, giving them control over the Congressional redistricting process that followed the election. The result was gerrymandering so extreme that, in the 2012 election, Democratic candidates for the U.S. House won 51 percent of the overall vote — but just four of 13 seats. Democrats now hold three House seats.
North Carolina’s sharp-right turn has made its politics central to national debates over voting rights, unemployment benefits, public education and more. It has also provoked grassroots protests within the state — most notably, a series of rallies organized by William Barber, a preacher and president of the North Carolina NAACP. Barber began leading regular protests, called “Moral Monday” marches, in 2013. The protests are focused on the Republican Party’s agenda in the state, including cuts to public education, tax cuts for the wealthy and new voting restrictions that disproportionately affect minorities. Recently, the protests have also focused on HB2, the so-called “bathroom bill” passed by the state legislature in March, which requires people to use public bathrooms according to the sex they were assigned at birth.
Some of the GOP’s agenda has been blocked or overturned by courts. In July, for example, a federal appeals court ruled that the state’s voter ID law illegally targeted African-Americans. And, in August, a federal judge ruled that the state’s university system couldn’t enforce the bathroom bill. The case will continue moving through the courts.
Sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so, these issues are all on the table in the Senate race between Ross and Burr. Over the past two weeks, the race has also become very much about Donald Trump, who has named Burr to his national security advisory council. After the video of Trump’s bragging about sexually assaulting women surfaced this month, Burr said he wanted to judge Trump’s “level of contrition” before deciding whether to distance himself. When Trump released a video apology, Burr said that he forgave him.
At the only scheduled debate between the candidates, held October 13, Ross said that Burr’s loyalty was “very disturbing” and that Burr “has toed the party line even when Donald Trump has crossed the line.” Burr said he took Trump “at his word” that he didn’t actually engage in the kind of sexual assault he bragged about in the video.
The Trump sexual assault twist is ironic, given that, in late September, Burr’s campaign began airing attack ads that focused on Ross’s work with the ACLU in the 1990s. The ads alleged that Ross opposed the state’s sex offender registry. Ross claims that she had reservations about the way the registry was used, but that she always supported it and her intent was to strengthen rather than abolish the registry.
Polls through the first half of the year showed Burr with a wide lead, often in the high single or low double digits. But Ross turned a corner in August, occasionally leading the race or trailing by narrow margins. The most recent polls, conducted in the wake of the Trump video scandal, showed the candidates either tied or within a point of each other.
North Carolina seems to sum up both the worst and the best of American politics at this moment. It’s thoroughly corrupted by corporate money and susceptible to right-wing campaigns that write inequality and discrimination into law. And yet, there is also evidence of successful pushback and progressive coalition building.
A victory for Ross wouldn’t reverse the damage of the past several years. But it would be a clear victory, symbolically and substantively, and a hopeful sign of a turning tide in North Carolina — and, maybe, more broadly. As the NAACP’s Barber said at his Democratic National Convention speech this year, the fight is about “a moral revolution of values.”
“When we fight for $15 and a union,” he said, “and universal health care, and public education, and immigrant rights, and LGBTQ rights, we are reviving the heart of our democracy.”