In Surry County Republican Bill Surratt’s view, there was no one defining issue in the race between Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic opponent Deborah Ross for U.S. Senate.
“Society is just split in ways we’ve never seen before,” he said. “As a society we’re split down the middle on our core values.”
But there was a single reason the race was an important one, according to Surratt.
“The main thing is we have to hold the Senate,” he said. “Pardon the pun, but that trumps everything right now. That will be the only thing that keeps her (Hillary Clinton), in check.”
Surratt got his wish, or at least part of it.
In what The Associated Press called “the first concrete sign of where the state was headed in the 2016 election,” voters re-elected Burr, the powerful chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
However, the presidential race between GOP nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, as well as Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s re-election bid, were too close to call late Tuesday.
The split of which Surratt spoke illustrates what has made North Carolina something of a political enigma — and also a key presidential battleground.
Growing cities contain troves of Democratic voters, while vast rural swaths are conservative. A 2012 Census analysis found that only Texas had more rural residents.
Democrats represent about 40 percent of the state’s 6.9 million registered voters, while Republicans and independents are about 30 percent each.
But the state has voted reliably for Republican presidential candidates since 1980, with the exception of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.
Meanwhile, Republicans have controlled the General Assembly since 2010 and are expected to retain majorities.
Divisive issues include a GOP-enacted state law curtailing early voting and requiring photo ID from voters was struck down by a federal court, but reverberates in many voters’ minds.
The law known as HB2 is also divisive. It requires transgender people to use restrooms in many public buildings corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate, and it excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from statewide anti-discrimination protections.
Meanwhile, voting access has been a key issue for many voters. Last week, a federal judge ordered three North Carolina counties to restore the registrations of thousands of voters after the NAACP sued over residency-based challenges.
In Democratic-leaning Durham County, eight precincts were allowed to stay open later after a computer glitch forced poll workers to check for registered voters on paper printouts.
Local results don’t reflect the same down the middle split seen throughout the state as a whole.
With 99 percent of the precincts reported late Tuesday, Burr took 51.77 percent of the statewide vote, with Ross at 44.64 percent and Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh at 3.59 percent.
Burr hammered Ross in Surry County, capturing 72.74 percent of the total vote.
However, the race was close enough for long enough that neither Surry County party leader felt confident their team would emerge with a victory.
Early voting results showed Burr leading with 52.16 percent of the vote compared to Ross’s 44.71 percent.
That gap started to narrow as the first precincts submitted reports, and by 8 p.m., the pair were nearly tied, with Burr at 48.86 percent and Ross at 48.06 percent.
“He has a lot of experience invested,” said Surry County Republican Party chair Dan Kiger.
Gloria Lawrence, a volunteer with the Surry County Democratic Party, wasn’t sure that Ross could prevail.
“Richard Burr has been there for a long time,” she said. “I’m sure he’s done a lot of favors for a lot of people.”
Lawrence added that Burr’s recent statement that the term would be his last if elected was a sign of hope.
“I thought that showed he was getting desperate,” she said. “It was like a last-ditch effort.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.