SMITHFIELD, N.C. (AP) — Vulnerable Senate Republicans are keeping their distance from Donald Trump. Not North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr.
"There's not a separation between me and Donald Trump," Burr said at a Gaston County GOP event last month. The chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee is one of Trump's national security advisers.
Campaigning for Democrat Hillary Clinton in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, President Barack Obama slammed Burr for that statement.
"Either he actually means it, in which case he agrees with everything Donald Trump says," Obama said. "Or he doesn't mean it, and he's just saying it to get elected. That's not good either way."
In New Hampshire, Nevada and Pennsylvania, endangered Republicans are refusing to even say if they will vote for Trump. Burr is figuring support for Trump will be key with Republican voters even as demographics have changed.
Some Republicans are worried they will lose control of the Senate, especially with some polls showing Clinton with a slight edge in North Carolina and with Burr and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross in a tight race.
Burr is betting his 2010 strategy will work again this year: stay out of the limelight, limit appearances at public rallies and trash the opponent through attack ads. But his laid-back approach has given national GOP operatives fits for months, with some believing he could have dispatched Ross as a serious candidate months ago. Many rolled their eyes when he said over the summer that he wouldn't become a candidate until the Senate adjourned in October, and were exasperated when he announced it would be his final bid for re-election.
Some of his recent remarks at private GOP gatherings have nonetheless raised his profile. Burr has vowed to continue blocking any appointment Clinton might make to replace Antonin Scalia, who died in February, on the U.S. Supreme Court. In one case, he jabbed at Clinton for her support of gun control measures, referring to her likeness on the cover of a gun magazine.
"It's got a picture of Hillary Clinton on the front of it. I was a little bit shocked that it didn't have a bull's-eye on it," Burr said in a recording published Monday by CNN. He apologized and drew criticism from Ross and gun control groups.
Burr also faces other headwinds.
Much of the growth in the state's voting-age population in the last six years has been with younger and more urban residents who tend to vote Democratic. Voters who oppose Trump also tend to express anger about the hard-right policy adopted by state GOP leaders, particularly a law signed by Gov. Pat McCrory that limits protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The GOP's Senate Leadership Fund, a super political action committee allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, says it's pouring nearly $13 million into TV, cable and radio ads to tarnish Ross. The attacks include Ross' positions as head of the state American Civil Liberties Union in the 1990s, when she expressed opposition to a sex offender registry bill and supported a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed flag burning free expression under the Constitution.
Despite all the outside money and his own TV attack ads, Burr prefers to campaign privately at small events, sometimes with his wife.
"Brooke and I have been on the road for 10 days. My staff doesn't even know where we go. And that's the way I'd like to keep it," he told about 2,000 people at an annual conservative rally inside a tobacco warehouse last Friday. The stage featured campaign signs for the GOP presidential ticket and McCrory, but not Burr's.
Reporters also are rarely invited to cover his remarks or contacts with voters. A campaign spokesman said in an email that one of the state's largest papers, The News & Observer of Raleigh, was banned from receiving notice in response to articles to which the Burr campaign objected.
Burr said in the recording released this week after his private GOP gathering Saturday that he customarily refuses interview requests. "It gives them an opportunity to spin something good about her and say something bad about me," Burr said, referring to Ross.
Ross is attempting to tap into voter frustration with Washington gridlock. During a rally last week with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Ross said "Richard Burr is part of the problem."
Ross also has criticized several of his policy positions: his opposition to a higher federal minimum wage; a proposal to introduce private insurance elements to Medicare; and support for an overturned North Carolina law that required a photo ID for in-person voting while also reducing early voting days.
"My opponent Richard Burr, he calls me a radical. But you know, I don't know what's so radical about making sure everybody has the right to vote," Ross said.
Gordon Tillmore, an unaffiliated voter who said he voted for Ross, said the attack on Burr's long congressional career was persuasive.
"I don't think he's being a public servant. I think he's doing it for himself," Tillmore said after leaving a downtown Raleigh early voting site last week.
But Burr is doing well with independent voters, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll released Friday. His campaign brought home Tonnie Lawrence, an unaffiliated voter who leans Republican and agrees with the party's traditional tenets of limited government.
Burr got her vote because "he is out there to try to keep taxes low," Lawrence said.