In this tough election year for Democrats comes one unexpected ray of light: Richard Burr, a first-term Republican Senator from North Carolina, appears to be within striking distance of defeat. An internal poll from Lake Research Partners shows Burr's Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, squeaking past him by 37 percent to 35 percent—with 23 percent of voters undecided and with a 4 point margin of error. Outside polling has been decidedly more mixed: a SurveyUSA poll from early July showed Burr out ahead by 10 points, while a poll from the conservative-leaning Rassmussen showed Burr with a 5-point advantage.
Even so, it's clear this has become a much tougher contest for Burr than Republicans had expected. Burr's low favorability ratings turned him into a prime target for Democrats early on in the election cycle. And it's particularly striking that Marshall—an unabashedly progressive Democrat who's campaigned on the public option—has managed to mount a serious challenge against a party-line, arch-conservative Republican. When Burr began to show signs of looking vulnerable last year, prognosticators declared that a Blue Dog Democrat like Rep. Heath Shuler or Rep. Mike McIntyre would have the best chance against him.
But after being passed over by the Democratic National Committee as its preferred candidate for the race, Marshall has seized the outsider mantle and used it to her advantage, gaining support from the liberal netroots outside the state as well as local Democratic allies. And now national Democrats are beginning to throw their full weight behind Marshall, with Vice President Joe Biden hosting a fundraiser in the state this week. If Marshall continues to pick up steam, North Carolina could end up being one Senate race in which the Democrats can use the anti-incumbency mood to their advantage.