Sunday, January 17, 2010

Burr In the Saddle

The race in Massachusetts to fill the unexpired U.S. Senate term of Ted Kennedy is almost over. Thank God for that. But there are still the regular midterm Senate elections and other special races ahead. Despite their diminished standing in the polls, Democrats think they have a realistic shot of winning one or more of the open Senate seats being vacated by Republicans, namely in New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida and possibly Kentucky (yeah, right). They're even eyeing the seat of Republican Richard Burr in North Carolina, who is not retiring but whose poll numbers are weak - in Harry Reid territory - and has kept a low profile.
But Burr is also in jeopardy due to what I like to call Sam Ervin's curse. The curse goes like this: No incumbent senator has won re-election to this seat since Sam Ervin, the folksy Democrat who chaired the Senate committee investigating the Watergate affair, was re-elected to the seat in . . . 1968. To give you some perspective, that was the year Ervin's fellow North Carolinian Andy Griffith's namesake sitcom aired its last episode. And "Matlock" has come and gone since then.
A history of elections to the seat since then goes like this:
Ervin chose not to run for re-election in 1974, the year President Nixon resigned over Watergate. North Carolina's state attorney general, Robert Burren Morgan, was elected to the Senate that year with 63 percent of the vote. In the Senate, Morgan established himself as moderate-conservative in the Jimmy Carter mold. But dissatisfaction with Carter in North Carolina in 1980 allowed Ronald Reagan to carry the state in that year's presidential election and allowed Republican John East to narrowly defeat Morgan in his bid for a second term. East exploited Morgan's involvement in the Panama Canal Treaty that eventually gave control of the canal to the Panamanian government.
East, a rabid social conservative like his colleague Jesse Helms, chose not to run for a second term in 1986, citing his failing health; he was a paraplegic from polio and had hypothyroidism. In June 1986, he committed suicide, and the Republican governor named Republican Representative James Broyhill, a scion of a North Carolina furniture manufacturing family, as an interim senator. Broyhill ran for the remaining two months of East's term and for a full term in his own right but was defeated by Democrat Terry Sanford in both elections, both held on November 4, 1986.
Sanford, a former governor and president of Duke University, served a full term in the Senate, where he had a record for supporting policies for economic development for Central America. In 1992 he lost his bid for a second full term to the ridiculously named Republican Lauch Faircloth, an ex-Democrat and a former highway commissioner in Sanford's gubernatorial administration and onetime Sanford "friend." Sanford himself was so dissatisfied with the Senate, he almost retired voluntarily.
Faircloth, another Helms manqué like John East, lost his bid for re-election in 1998 to John Edwards, who became a superstar for his star quality and his aw-shucks Mayberry style. Edwards didn't run for re-election in 2004, choosing instead to run for President that year; some say he would have lost that year, citing his falling standing in North Carolina polls. As it turned out, the seat changed parties once again, with Republican Richard Burr defeating former Clinton White House Chief of Staff (and current University of North Carolina system) Erskine Bowles in that November's election.
Fast forward to 2010. Richard Burr is a Republican incumbent in an election year that favors Republicans but not incumbents. And Burr is currently seen more as the latter than the former.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter Sam Ervin's Senate seat.
Forget Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania or Harry Reid in Nevada. Richard Burr's bid for re-election to the Senate from North Carolina is the race I want to watch.

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