Close, expensive 2020 campaign a preview of 2022 open seat

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., listens during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (Al Drago/Pool via AP)

RALEIGH — The race between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, ultimately won by Tillis, was the most expensive Senate race in the nation.

2022 is likely to be expensive as well.

Bloomberg Government reported that over $271 million was spent in the race by the candidates and outside groups. Tillis prevailed by around 2% of the vote to earn a second six-year term representing the state.

Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican who was elected to his third term in 2016, said at the time he would retire at the end of the term and not run for re-election in 2022, making it an open seat.

Speculation began almost as soon as Burr was sworn in.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory passed on a fourth run for governor in 2020 and said on his radio program he would look at running for the open seat.

Mark Meadows, who represented the 11th Congressional district, until taking over as White House chief of staff, earlier this year, is also mentioned as a possibility.

A third potential candidate is Rep. Mark Walker, who openly pondered a primary challenge against Tillis after the 2019 redistricting session that redrew the Sixth Congressional District he represented since 2015.

Rep. Ted Budd, who represents the state’s 13th Congressional District, could also make a run.

Democrats mentioned for the seat include Attorney General Josh Stein, who would not have to resign his position, and state Sen. Jeff Jackson, who met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to talk about a campaign in 2020. Jackson inadvertently gave Republicans an attack line in 2020 race, saying that Schumer wanted a nominee who would “spend the next 16 months in a windowless basement raising money,” according to an October 2019 story in National Review. Those attacks dogged Cunningham in both his primary over state Sen. Erica Smith and the general election.

Other Democrats who could run for the seat include Smith, who criticized national Democrats for a lack of support, Wake County state Rep. Grier Martin, who is frequently mentioned as a statewide candidate, or Deborah Ross, who easily won the redrawn Second Congressional District seat and ran against Burr in 2016.

The race would be important for both parties given the close makeup of the U.S. Senate heading into 2021.

With the two Georgia runoffs looming on Jan. 5, 2021, Republicans currently hold 50 seats to 48 from Democrats. The outcome of those races could give Republicans a margin of four seats or evenly divide the chamber.

Burr, who served 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, faces a probe from the U.S. Department of Justice following allegations of improper stock sales. Federal agents seized Burr’s cell phone in May. If Burr resigns from his seat, the N.C. Republican Party would submit three names to Gov. Roy Cooper to serve the remainder of Burr’s term.