RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Little-known former Democratic state legislator Deborah Ross is counting on public anger over the GOP political takeover of North Carolina to help her upset two-term U.S. Senator Richard Burr, a victory that could also help hand control of the U.S. Senate back to Democrats.
Despite scant name recognition at the start of the election, Ross has pulled even with Burr in the polls in a state that is split almost evenly ideologically. The race is now pulling in millions of dollars in outside PAC money as the opponents attempt to flip the state or keep it in the GOP fold.
So far, Ross' strategy of attacking Burr's record and criticizing state GOP policies such as the law limiting protections for LGBT people seems to be working with the traditional Democratic and moderate independent voters she is courting.
"North Carolinians feel pretty let down by Republicans," said Ann Cox, 21, of Hillsborough, a student at the all-female Meredith College. She is a registered Democrat and part of the millennial voting block Ross needs to win to upset Burr.
"I think we're seeing that what we have now isn't working and Deborah Ross represents what has worked in the past and what will work when she's elected," Cox said.
One of the factors that could help Ross is if she is able to get any coattail votes from women voting for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
To the frustration of national Republicans, Burr is for the most part sticking to the laidback routine he followed during his past two Senate campaigns, waiting until Congress recesses in early October before he starts stumping in earnest.
One exception: Earlier this week, both his campaign and the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC supporting Republican senate candidates, released attack ads accusing Ross of opposing the creation of the state's sex-offender registry when she was working for the American Civil Liberties Union. Ross blasted the ads as false.
Ross is emerging as a sharp and canny campaigner, energetically traveling the state talking about jobs and needling the Senate intelligence committee chairman for absenteeism.
Until recently, North Carolina was seen as a second-tier Senate race in an election season where Democrats need to net five seats to retake control of the Senate — or four if they hang onto the White House, since the vice president casts tie-breaking votes. But the Senate map has been shifting as Democrats all but cede Ohio and slow down spending in Florida.
The AFL-CIO rates the Burr-Ross race among the top races it seeks to influence by getting union members to knock on doors, make phone calls and chat up Ross as a candidate during lunch breaks, said Liz Shuler, the labor federation's national secretary-treasurer.
"We're going to be moving more people and money and investment here," Shuler said. "All eyes are on North Carolina."
While polls show most voters don't know Ross, a big chunk of the North Carolina electorate also admits not knowing Burr, despite his 12 years in the Senate and a decade before that in the House.
Ross, 53, moved to her adopted state in 1986 to attend law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and stayed after graduation.
Burr's campaign has sought to paint Ross' leadership of the ACLU in the 1990s as proof that she is too liberal for a conservative Southern state. Ross responds that she was involved in an organization that opposes government overreach. She left the ACLU and in 2003 joined the state House, where she served for 10 years and was known as a quick-witted, sharp-tongued debater who in the course of a single day could both take down and work alongside Republicans.
Jeff Poley, a Raleigh attorney and Burr supporter, said he's concerned that the polls are tight and the senator isn't on the stump. But especially after bombing attempts in New York and New Jersey and a mall stabbing attack in Minnesota, Poley is glad Burr is overseeing the work of U.S. intelligence agencies.
"I trust that he is taking care of our national security and would put that in front of campaigning," said Poley, 45.
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Associated Press writer Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.