North Carolina Senator Richard Burr is often listed as one of the most vulnerable Republican Senate incumbents. Unfortunately for Burr, recent polling underlines the danger he could be in.
While he does lead his Democratic opponent, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, by ten points, a 46-36 race isn't exactly comfortable territory for an incumbent. Burr's 28/27 favorable/unfavorable rating isn't great news, either. Marshall has a 25/12 rating. She is a lower profile figure right now, so public opinion could change once the race heats up.
The example of 2008 might only stoke the anxieties of Burr supporters even more. Incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole led her Democratic challenger Kay Hagan in the beginning of 2008, but she never got much above 50%. By the end of the summer, Hagan had gained a lead, and she ended up ousting Dole 52-44.
Burr has a number of advantages going into this race: money, the Democratic Congress, and Barack Obama. He maintains a healthy fund-raising lead over Marshall, and the voters of North Carolina are exasperated with the performance of Congress and the president. Only 36% approve of Obama's performance; 45% disapprove. If Burr can make the case that a vote for Marshall is a vote for the current powers-that-be on Capitol Hill and in the White House, he could end up with a strong win.
A warning to Burr, though: don't get too negative. The viciousness of Dole's attack ads on Hagan may have helped boost Hagan's support in the closing days of 2008. The types of voters that Burr needs the most to improve his image with (women, self-described moderates, independents) are perhaps the ones most likely to be turned off by over-the-top attack ads. Burr will need to walk the fine line between rousing his own supporters while winning over voters in the middle.
This is a race Republicans can win. A loss by Burr would be crushing to Republican hopes of regaining the Senate. The political environment of 2010 is not that of 2008. If Burr can make the most of this change, he can look forward to another six years in the Senate.