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John Hood: Burr a heavy favorite in 2016

RALEIGH — Pretty much as soon as the polls closed on Election Day 2014, the political prognosticators began laying bets on what will happen by Election Day 2016. At the national level, attention quickly focused on the seemingly endless parade of Republicans seeking to take on Hillary Clinton.

Next up for snap judgment among political junkies was the potential fate of the new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. Just as the 2014 map was unfriendly to the Democrats, whose ranks included many freshmen elected during the 2008 Democratic wave, the 2016 map will be unfriendly to Republicans, many of whom were first elected during the anti-Obama wave of 2010.

North Carolina’s senior senator, Richard Burr, isn’t one of them. That is, he won his second Senate election in 2010, not his first. But Burr’s seat is typically listed as one of the Democrats’ top targets for the 2016 cycle. Despite recent GOP success in the state, North Carolina’s electorate remains closely divided. Democrats will be highly competitive up and down the ballot in 2016.

The problem the party has in the U.S. Senate race, however, is that its most capable candidates will probably opt to run for something else. Attorney General Roy Cooper will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee to challenge Gov. Pat McCrory. I suspect that State Treasurer Janet Cowell, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (Burr’s foe in 2010), Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, and key Democrats in the state house and senate will be loathe to pass up what are good reelection prospects in order to take on an incumbent senator.

It would be one thing if 2016 promised to be a Democratic wave akin to 2006 or 2008. Perhaps later this year, the wind will seem to be blowing that way — and many North Carolina Democrats will feel emboldened to unfurl their sails and see how far it can take them. But I tend to doubt it.

Although Hillary Clinton will try hard to escape this fate, she’ll likely be perceived as a candidate of continuity, not change. That doesn’t mean she’ll lose. I doubt American voters will be as down in the dumps in 2016 as they are right now. And the “first in history” status of the Clinton campaign will motivate Democratic-leaning voters in ways comparable to the boost the Obama campaigns received in 2008 and 2012. Still, I don’t see Clinton having long coattails even if she wins. The Democrat who defeats Burr will have to accomplish the task with a well-funded, well-crafted message powered by a well-organized campaign.

If we’re talking Democratic politicians who don’t have to give up elected offices to run in 2016, then the short list includes former congressmen Mike McIntyre, Heath Shuler, and Brad Miller, U.S. Transportation Secretary and former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, current mayors Allen Joines of Winston-Salem and Nancy McFarlane of Raleigh, and former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.

I doubt that last scenario, by the way. Hagan just lost a tough, expensive, emotionally draining election. She could certainly make a political comeback, but probably not in just two years. After his gubernatorial loss in 1984, Jim Hunt was wise to ignore calls for him to run for Senate in 1986 and governor in 1988. He and the voters needed some time apart. Hagan should take a breather, at least, and probably will.

Look at the remaining names on the list. Many are smart, talented politicians who’ve won competitive races in the past and have a circle of strategists, donors, and activists with whom to start building campaigns. None is known to voters outside of a home city or former district, however. They’d have a lot of work to do, so much that they’d have to get to work on their campaigns soon.

Again, assuming no radical change of the political fortunes of President Obama and his party, I think Burr has to be the favorite in his 2016 duel — regardless of who ends up walking off the paces with him. The marquee race of the year will be for governor, not U.S. Senate.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.

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