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Trump Puts Sen. Richard Burr In Difficult Position With N.C. Voters


Control of congress comes down to a handful of Senate races this year, and one of those is North Carolina. Republican incumbent Richard Burr is facing a challenge that's tougher than expected. And one reason why it's so close - the candidates at the top of the ticket. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: At the very start of their only debate last Thursday night, Richard Burr and his Democratic challenger, Deborah Ross, were asked to explain their support for their party's presidential candidate. For Burr, this was a sticky question coming on the heels of the "Access Hollywood" tape where Donald Trump bragged about groping and kissing women without their consent followed by accusations by several women that Trump had actually engaged in such behavior. But Burr had a ready answer.


RICHARD BURR: I'm the son of a Presbyterian minister. My dad taught me when somebody asked for forgiveness, you grant it. Now, I'm not going to defend Donald Trump, what he said or his actions, but when I look at our choice, it's not close for me.

NAYLOR: Leaving aside whether Trump ever asked for forgiveness, Burr is in a difficult spot with North Carolina voters.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come on in to the Westover Methodist Church booth. We've got the best hot dogs and chili dogs.

NAYLOR: At the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, along with the rides and church food booths, some politicking is going on. In the commercial building, a Trump for president stand was doing a brisk business in yard signs and T-shirts. Conrad Williams of Aden, N.C., is wearing a Trump sticker and says Burr and other Republicans haven't been supportive enough of Trump.

CONRAD WILLIAMS: I think a lot of the Republicans have tried to cover their butts, and they're here and there as the wind blows. I don't think anybody or very few of them have gotten behind him as they should.

NAYLOR: At the other end of the building, Durham resident Grace Fort is trying to find a Hillary Clinton sticker at the Democrats' booth, but they've run out. Fort says the presidential race is influencing her support in the Senate contest.

GRACE FORT: I'm kind of leaning towards Ross.

NAYLOR: Burr supports Trump. Would that factor in your...

FORT: Yeah (laughter), yeah, it's does.

NAYLOR: Despite two terms in the Senate where he chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, the 60-year-old Burr has a low profile in North Carolina. He was criticized by some Republicans for not really getting his campaign going until this month. The National Republican Senate Committee has been running ads on his behalf, attacking Ross, a former state lawmaker and former head of the state's ACLU.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ross defends those who want to burn the American flag, even called efforts to ban flag burning ridiculous yet refused...

NAYLOR: Ross, who is 53, has accused Burr of allowing campaign money from energy interests to influence his votes and personally profiting from his office.


DEBORAH ROSS: Senator Burr voted no on the Violence Against Women Act but voted yes to increase his own pay. That's just wrong. I'm Deborah Ross.

NAYLOR: But beyond the usual back and forth, political science professor John Dinan at Wake Forest University says because of Trump, Burr has a fine line to walk.

JOHN DINAN: Richard Burr's facing some of the same quandaries that a lot of Republican officeholders are facing. Presidential voting will still drive much of the voting turnout, will bring people to the polls. And to the extent that he disavows Trump, that kind of perhaps runs the risk of reducing Republican turnout, which in turn has a chance of hurting Richard Burr's chances of it at the polls.

NAYLOR: Along with the Senate and presidential races, North Carolinians will also be electing a governor this year. Polls show all three races are very close, and in an age of diminished ticket splitting, it could be whichever party wins one of those races wins them all. Brian Naylor, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.