Nationwide, an outraged public has called for North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr to resign, after revelations that he failed to warn people about the new coronavirus pandemic. Burr, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, had access to crucial information as far back as January about the likely impact, but assured the public the situation was under control. Instead, he sold stocks in companies likely to be lose value as result of the crisis.
Meanwhile this has been striking: the crickets chirping over on Right-Wing Avenue.
Rather than leaping to Burr’s defense as they usually do when, say, President Trump is the object of allegations of impropriety, (which happens weekly), most conservative forces have been muted. (Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson is the exception, calling for Burr to explain himself or resign.)
While it would be nice to believe that this reaction is about morality and a concern for ethics in government, that seems extremely unlikely for a movement that has been joined at the hip with the Great Prevaricator for three years.
Here is the more likely explanation: politics.
If Burr is forced to resign less than two years prior to the end of his term — a term that he has already announced will be his last — it’s true that Gov. Roy Cooper would get to name his replacement. There is, however, a big catch: Under a 2018 law approved by Republican supermajorities in the General Assembly, the selection would have to come from a list of three individuals submitted by the executive committee of the state Republican Party. Previously, the governor only had to choose someone affiliated with the same political party as the outgoing senator.
So why is this important?
At least three factors stand out.
First, anyone selected to replace Burr would likely have a significant advantage in the 2022 election over a nominee chosen that spring, given all the advantages of name recognition and fundraising that naturally accrue to an incumbent. “If Burr is retiring anyway,” goes the likely thinking on the Right, “it couldn’t hurt to get someone else in there now and give them a head start on holding the seat going forward.”
Second, for all of his embarrassing greed and ineptitude, Burr is not a far-right Trumpist in the mold, for instance, of most of the state’s GOP delegation to the U.S. House. Burr is much more in the mold of, say, George W. Bush — conservative by instinct and social class, but not a hard-line fire-breather like, say, Mark Meadows, Virginia Foxx or Mark Walker.
Third is the political weakness that Burr would likely lend to the overall GOP ticket this fall — including the reelection prospects of fellow senator Thom Tillis. Even if Burr isn’t on the ballot, the last thing Republicans want is their senior elected official in the state serving as a national poster child for self-serving greed during a period of national crisis.
The bottom line: Burr’s transgressions may be so egregious that he will be unable to survive in this fast-moving period of societal crisis. But if he does stick around, it might not be the best scenario for his party or the worst outcome for the Democrats.