Gianni Sarra’s Senate Series: NORTH CAROLINA (Part 2)


In the previous article in this series, we looked at the regularly scheduled Senate election in North Carolina. There, Republican incumbent Thom Tillis faces a strong race from Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. There’s a decent chance that that race could determine control of the Senate, and with it the trajectory of US politics for the next two years at least. North Carolina is a swing state with a modest Republican tilt, but its diverse demographics mean any party can win statewide elections.  

North Carolina remains in the news for other reasons, though. In particular, the city of Charlotte is the scheduled site of the Republican National Convention, currently on track for August. Trump, a notorious fan of the pomp and ceremony that comes from the convention, craves the mother of all rallies that can only come from a packed renomination process. The Republicans, therefore, are asking for a convention with no social distancing or mask requirements, wanting a 50,000-strong event with crowded venues and hospitality services.

Democratic Governor Roy Cooper is insisting that it should only move forward with plans in place for a dramatically scaled down event, citing the impossibility of knowing what the risk from COVID-19 would be at this juncture. Republicans are countering by saying their plans for extensive hand sanitation and temperature monitoring will render such stringent restrictions unnecessary, and are accusing Cooper of playing politics. Additionally, they are threatening to move the convention elsewhere. Such a move would entail costly legal battles and millions of dollars in extra spending to make up for the contracts and investments already made for a Charlotte convention, but would cost the city about $100 million in lost economic revenue.

Cooper will also be on the ballot, alongside Tillis, in November, along with other statewide elected officials. Unlike Tillis, Cooper is a heavy favourite to win re-election. However, there is one statewide politician not currently facing reelection. His seat could, due to scandal, possibly open up anyway – adding yet another Republican defence to the Senate map.

Richard Burr, a Republican who has served in the Senate since 2005, is North Carolina’s senior Senator and until recently was chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. That position that entitled him to daily briefings on the coronavirus pandemic that contained the most highly classified information the US government received. He was also an architect of the 2006 law, the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, that helps govern the US legal response to pandemics.

Early in February, Burr told the public that the US was robustly prepared to weather a public health threat such as that posed by COVID-19. On 13 February, he sold off a substantial chunk of his stocks, valued somewhere between $628,000 and $1.72 million, a week before the stock market began its sharp decline. Among the investments he dropped were sales in hotel and hospitality businesses. Near the end of the month, he was still refusing to sound the alarm publicly on either the severity of the contagion or the degree of the measures required to combat it. Despite this, he was sounding the alarm privately. He told a behind-closed-doors 27 February meeting of the Tar Heel Circle, an exclusive social club for North Carolina’s business elites, that the virus and the required policy responses would be far more economically severe than was then believed.

Allegations that Burr had used privileged information for personal financial gain began to gain traction. While Burr was not the only Senator caught up in allegations of coronavirus-related insider trading scandals, Burr remains the only Senator still under active investigation by the Department of Justice. Other potentially implicated Senators have been told that they are no longer under investigation for insider trading. Burr received no such reprieve. On 13 May, the FBI carried out a search warrant on his residence in the capital, with a cell phone belonging to Burr seized, and the next day he, at least temporarily, stepped down from his committee chairmanship.

There have been calls across the political spectrum for Burr to resign. Burr has not exactly cloaked himself with credibility on this issue: the initial statement from Burr’s team in response to the allegations was a curt “lol”. Going back, Burr was one of only three Senators to vote against the STOCK Act of 2012, a bill intended to stop congressional insider trading, and the only ‘no’ vote in the Senate to still be in office.

Another complicating factor is that Burr does not exactly have the best relationship with Trumpworld. As chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr had greenlighted a report agreeing that Russia attempted to tilt the scales in the 2016 election in Trump’s favour and subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. to speak before the committee about the Russia probe. Trump has been rather silent publicly on the Burr allegations, but the famously vindictive Trump could well decide to add to the public outcry if he so chooses. For his part, Burr has been somewhat more willing lately to play according to Trump’s rules: he defended him in the impeachment inquiry and parroted the bogus conspiracy theory that Ukraine intervened in the 2016 election in a mirror of what Russia was doing.

Burr’s term ends in 2022, but he had already indicated that the current term would be his last. Right now, it looks like Burr is likely to keep his seat, but if the story escalates or stays in the headlines, pressure will mount, and it is due diligence for both parties to prepare for an expensive special election regardless. If Burr was to step down – and that’s a big if – his appointed replacement will be a Republican. North Carolina law requires that the Governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, pick Burr’s replacement from three names put forward by the North Carolina Republican Party.

As to how long that replacement will serve if Burr does step down, that depends. The critical date here is 4 September 2020. If Burr steps down before that date, the seat will go to a special election in November this year, with Republicans forced to defend both North Carolina Senate seats on the same day. If Burr resigns afterwards, the special election will be held in 2022 – on the same date as the regularly scheduled election for the same seat. The special election will determine who holds the seat for the two months in between election day and the inauguration of the new Congress – considerably lower stakes than the two year mini-term that a 2020 election will lead to. Democrats will of course welcome a further opportunity to expand the playing field, but have no obvious candidate to rally behind – their bench of credible statewide candidates is rather limited, and most have opted for state positions instead.

If Burr recognises the writing is on the wall, the Republicans will likely do what they can to keep him in office until on or after the 4th of September. If he loses his committee privileges permanently, he’ll lose much of the incentive to stay in office beyond that, but to resign before that date would require an exceptional scandal.

What pressure Burr will face will depend on what his Republican colleagues see as the greater risk – the great risk of having to defend another open seat or whatever continued controversy might come from Burr staying in office. His colleague Thom Tillis will be facing a tough battle for reelection no matter what. Along with the rest of the North Carolina Republican Party, he’ll be hoping that the Burr scandal fades from the headlines.

Gianni Sarra is a PhD candidate at King’s College London.  He is a recipient of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership studentship award and his doctoral research is on ‘The Dirty Rules Dilemma: Achieving Justice in Conditions of Corruption’.