- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Four Democrats seeking to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr believe they would bring viewpoints to Capitol Hill that focus more on the needs of everyday North Carolina residents than the two-term incumbent provides. They all believe they can win.

Yet only one of the candidates so far has translated that promised empathy into significant support in fundraising and weighty endorsements heading into the primary campaign’s final weeks.

Former state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh entered the new year with $452,000 in campaign money, many times over the campaign cash of Durham business owner Kevin Griffin, Army veteran Ernest Reeves of Greenville and Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey.

Ross secured the backing of the state AFL-CIO and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, comprised of Democratic senators aiming to win the majority in the chamber in November.

“I feel good but I take nothing for granted and we’re working very, very hard,” Ross said in a recent interview, pressing the message that Burr “has not put the people of North Carolina first in his voting and his policies.”

Rey, however, has collected endorsements from dozens of local government leaders like himself and some key community groups. He believes outreach to young voters and others gives him an advantage in the March 15 primary.

“I’m an Army guy. Army guys work on the ground,” said Rey, a former active-duty soldier and now a National Guard major. During the primary, he added, “folks are more interested really in the candidate and what they bring to the table, than really about the amount of money that they raise.”

Griffin, a newcomer to elected politics, has been in the employment staffing placement industry for decades. Griffin said he understands the challenges of small businesses.

“I’ve just focused on putting people to work - it’s been my entire career,” Griffin said at his Durham office. “So taking that outside perspective, the understanding of a true North Carolinian, somebody that has worked in a warehouse, that’s waited tables, that’s lived a full life of the normal middle-class American - that exposure isn’t in Washington.”

Reeves, who received 9 percent of the vote in the 2014 Senate Democratic primary won by then-Sen. Kay Hagan, said he’s running again because he’s “just not happy with Richard Burr,” citing Burr’s lack of support for gender-equity legislation on pay and for raising the minimum wage. Burr is considered the front-runner in his own primary against three other candidates. Sean Haugh is the Libertarian nominee.

The Democratic campaign, like other state races truncated when the General Assembly moved the primary from May for more influence in choosing presidential nominees, has been marked by Griffin, Reeves and Rey seeking to knock down Ross a notch.

Those three candidates have been critical of the DSCC injecting itself into the campaign, accusing Ross of being the establishment’s favorite during a year when voters are choosing outsiders. DSCC leaders “put their thumb on the scale of influence,” Rey said.

Griffin also has questioned Ross’ past work as a lobbyist for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, saying Republicans will use it against her in general election commercials. There’s “all the baggage that she brings to the table,” Griffin said.

Ross said she had no preconceived idea the DSCC would endorse her when she ran but said it was aware of her plans and wanted proof of her candidacy’s viability. As for her ACLU history, Ross said her civil rights and constitutional law experience “helps me reflect the values of all Americans … at this time, when we’re dealing with many important constitutional issues in the public sphere.”

Whoever wins the primary is likely to be considered an underdog if running against Burr, whose campaign had more than $5 million in cash entering 2016.

“I think that it’s going to be tough no matter who gets the nomination,” Rey said.


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