Reviewing North Carolina’s 2016 Senate Race

Last week, Deborah Ross, the 2016 Democratic nominee for Senate in North Carolina, wrote a piece in ‘Glamour’ magazine reflecting on her race last year. It reminded me that, while we extensively analyzed at the NC Gubernatorial race, we hadn’t really touched on the Senate contest. As such, here are a few observations from the Senatorial results.

Initially looking like a textbook Lean R race, Democrats were facing an uphill fight against two-term Sen. Richard Burr (R). A fairly low-key, but affable, legislator, since the election, Burr has become more of national figure; he chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, and has worked with Sen. Mark Warner (D) on the Trump-Russia investigation.

During the later parts of the campaign, Burr was criticized for supposedly running a lackluster campaign; this gave Democrats something of an opening. As a result, during the later stages of the campaign, the the DSCC triaged races like OH and FL, and shifted resources to NC, as well as MO.

Their nominee, Deborah Ross (D), turned out to to be a better than-expected campaigner. However, though the Senate race was seen a very competitive in the final months of the campaign, Burr continued to post slight but consistent poll leads. He won by a clear 6%:

Ostensibly, this was a pretty straightforward result, in context, things are more interesting.

Compared to Secretary Clinton, Ross, performed better in most rural areas of the state:

Not surprisingly, Clinton’s strongholds in this map tended to be more higher-educated suburban precincts – places like southern Mecklenburg or western Forsyth counties. Burr’s comparatively vanilla profile meant was more palatable to this demographic than Trump. Conversely, Trump’s massive margins in Appalachia gave meant that Ross overperformed Clinton in most of the Blue Ridge.

Compared to the Gubernatorial race, Ross was strongest, compared to Cooper, in eastern NC:

Much of this was likely due to Hurricane Matthew’s effects, giving McCrory a boost against Cooper (which we discussed previously). However, it is interesting that Cooper still ran behind Ross in many urban, majority-minority precincts.

Here’s a comparison of all three of the Democrats in the major statewide races:

For the most part, Cooper, who pulled out a narrow win, did the best in the most precincts. Again, as with the effects of Hurricane Matthew, Cooper was glaringly weak out east. Considering that both Clinton and Ross outperformed him in many precincts there, he may be in a position to get something of a natural structural bounce there when he’s up again in 2020.

Ross did especially well in Robeson County, the the southeast – we’ll discuss this county next week (bigly). Another interesting result was in Onslow County; Ross performed the best in the precinct with Camp Lejeune, the large, green precinct in the center. Admittedly, I was expecting Ross to have more strength, vis-a-vis the other candidates, in white liberal areas, such as around Asheville or the Research Triangle.

Finally, we’ll look at how both Ross and Burr performed with the constituents that knew them best.

Burr, before winning his Senate seat in 2004, represented NC’s 5th Congressional District. He originally won the seat in 1994. The lines shifted multiple times during his tenure, but NC-05 was primarily a blend of the northern Blue Ridge mountains, suburban Winston-Salem, and a handful of Virginia border counties.

Burr’s final House race was in 2002, and his district looks like this:

The district is deeply Republican – some counties there, such as Wilkes and Yadkin, never even voted for Franklin Roosevelt.

While President Trump would have easily carried this version of the district, and Burr have run slightly ahead:

What’s most interesting here is actually Cooper’s overperformance. Cooper actually received 17K more votes than Clinton, which eclipses his statewide 10K margin over McCrory.

Ross was elected to the NC State House in 2002, and served until 2012. For most of her career, she represented HD-38, a district in Wake County. It encompassed downtown Raleigh, a swath of NC State University, and went south to the city of Garner. HD-38 is highlighted in yellow:

While Ross would have carried her old seat by a greater than 2:1 margin, she was actually the Democrat that performed worst there. Trump was a uniquely bad fit for the seat, and McCrory was unpopular in Wake County, thus Burr seemed to perform like the most generic Republican:


Going forward, we should have more competitive races in North Carolina. In 2020, Sen. Thom Tillis (R), who narrowly squeaked by in 2014, will be one of the Democrat’s few solid targets that year. Burr said last year that this term would be his last, so we’ll likely have an open-seat race to watch.