Races of the Week:Burr vs. Bowles

The North Carolina political scene is notoriously unpredictable. To the surprise of Democrats and Republicans alike, GOP Rep. Richard Burr announced last year that he was relinquishing the Winston-Salem area seat he has held for a decade to take on one of the Democrats’ genuine bright lights, Sen. John Edwards. This year, after his presidential race fizzled, Edwards announced that he was giving up his Senate seat. And then, very quickly, Edwards resurfaced as John Kerry’s vice presidential running mate.

These changes left Burr (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 92%) facing Democratic Senate primary winner Erskine Bowles, a millionaire investment banker and the losing Democratic Senate candidate against Elizabeth Dole two years ago. Bowles is best known nationally as White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton. (Bowles TV spots these days show him sitting in the Oval Office but, as Burr says with a chuckle, “You can’t find the President anywhere there.”)

“So you have a tremendous contrast,” says the 48-year-old Burr, onetime football star at Wake Forest and a consumer products sales and marketing manager before going to Congress, “One candidate has a ten-year record of voting to lower taxes and keep health care in private hands. The other served in the administration that gave us the largest tax increase in history and was the point man in 1993 for ‘Hillary-Care,’ which would have put one-seventh of the American economy under government control. One wants to make the President’s tax cuts permanent, the other wants to roll them back. One serves on the House Intelligence Committee and supports the rebuilding of our counter-intelligence forces. The other was part of an administration that oversaw drastic cuts in our intelligence apparatus at a time when Al Qaeda was on the march.”

For all Bowles’ connection to the Clintons, Tar heel State conservatives believe it is most appropriate that he is the ticket mate of Kerry, as the charge of “flip-flopping” almost constantly dogs both Democrats. In Burr’s words, “It’s a fulltime job to figure out where he stands on just about anything. He was one of the top architects of U.S. trade with Red China in 1997-98, but now wants to cut back trade with Beijing until we start enforcing trade agreements. Well, let me ask him–what President finally started to enforce trade agreements? George W. Bush has. He’s put teeth in the textile petitions in our agreements with China and takes anti-dumping measures seriously.”

As for his opponent’s stance on abortion, Burr says, “I’m clueless. It seems to have changed from his last campaign to this one. But mine’s consistent–pro-life, all the way.”

Consistency and straight talk on every issue from abortion to tax cuts to restoring American intelligence has been the lodestar of Richard Burr’s campaigns since he almost unseated a nine-term Democratic House member in 1992 and then won an open House district two years later. It is what has attracted hundreds of young volunteers and thousands of small donors to his banner, making Burr at least even money against someone who probably has 100% name recognition, not just because of his run against Elizabeth Dole two years ago but also because he is the son of late Democratic gubernatorial nominee Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles.

Since World War II, the two most durable politicians North Carolinians have sent to the Senate have been Democrat Sam Ervin, who served from 1956-74, and Republican Jesse Helms, who served from 1972-2002. They were two very different people in style and philosophy, but shared a consistency on whatever positions they took that left no doubts in the minds of voters. It is that admirable trait that Richard Burr will bring back to the Senate if his fellow conservatives do all they can to help him overcome his better-known liberal opponent.