RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A Democrat seeking to unseat Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina received a key endorsement Thursday from a Washington-based group led by Democratic senators.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced it was backing Deborah Ross, a former state legislator from Raleigh. She faces three other Democrats in the March 15 primary.
The DSCC throws its weight around in primaries on a case-by-case basis. The endorsement signals the Democratic establishment on Capitol Hill believes she's best suited to unseat Burr, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, and could bring more campaign donations her way.
In general elections, the DSCC has commonly spent millions of dollars on campaign ads supporting the Democratic Senate candidate and criticizing the Republican.
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the group's chairman, cited Ross' effectiveness while a member of the General Assembly and says her commitment to North Carolina families "is unwavering."
"North Carolina deserves a U.S. senator who will fight to grow the middle class, build an economy that works for everyone and protect the services like Medicare and Social Security that our seniors rely on, and that leader is Deborah Ross," Tester said in a release.
Other primary candidates are Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey, Durham businessman Kevin Griffin and Ernest Reeves of Greenville.
Ross, who most recently was the lawyer for Raleigh-Durham's transit authority, also has received endorsements in the past week from interest groups closely aligned with Democrats, including Emily's List and the North Carolina AFL-CIO, although a union endorsement may not be as influential in a state known for having the nation's lowest union organizing rate.
"North Carolina is in play in 2016 and I'm proud that the DSCC recognizes that my strong record fighting for our people and our families is what North Carolina needs," Ross said in a statement.
Ross' primary opponents downplayed the endorsement or said the DSCC's support for her proved they were on the right track to win over rank-and-file Democrats.
"I am not angry. I am undaunted and unbowed," Rey said in a release, adding his campaign message "is resonating with a restless Democratic base that is not in a mood to be talked down to by the Washington, D.C. power elite."
Griffin campaign manager Jeff Worcester wrote the DSCC was trying to undermine the will of primary voters and that Griffin's campaign had spoken on issues "that generally make the establishment cringe."
"Endorsements don't win elections — it's the voters," Reeves, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate nomination in 2014, said in an interview.
Rey and Griffin also have suggested Ross' record and past work history could hurt her in the general election and provide fodder for Republican attack ads. She was considered one of the more liberal members of the General Assembly, and before getting elected was a legislative lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union in Raleigh.
Burr, who was elected to the Senate in 2004 after 10 years in the U.S. House, has his own primary, with his chief rival being Greg Brannon, who finished second to Thom Tillis in the 2014 North Carolina primary. Tillis ultimately unseated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. Brannon is a favorite of the tea party movement and has accused Burr of failing to stand up against President Barack Obama's initiatives.
Democrats need to gain five additional seats overall to ensure a Senate majority in 2017.