By SEAN MUSSENDEN and JAMES ROMOSER
Media General News Service
WASHINGTON-Locked in a tight re-election bid, Sen. Elizabeth Dole has become a familiar face in North Carolina this year. She’s cheered at ACC basketball games and NASCAR races, met with troops and local sheriffs, and, of course, attended fundraisers and enjoyed plenty of barbecue.
In total, Dole, a Republican, has spent more than three months in North Carolina in 2008. Her frequent travel across North Carolina this year is a departure from previous years, when she spent much less time in the state, a review of Senate travel records shows.
Dole’s critics say the amount of time she has spent in North Carolina during her first term – especially 2006, when records document less than two weeks of visits – suggest she is out-of-touch with voters in the state.
“She’s been an absentee and ineffective senator…How can she know if she’s effectively serving the people of North Carolina? She’s rarely here.” said Colleen Flanagan, a spokeswoman for Dole’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Kay Hagan.
Dole and her supporters strongly dispute that charge, pointing out that she has visited every North Carolina county while in office and scores of big cities and small towns. And, they argue, the records present a misleading accounting of the time she spent in the state.
“We’ll go places in North Carolina, and they’ll say, this is the first time they’ve seen a senator in their town ever, or one of only a few times. That speaks volumes,” said Brian Nick, Dole’s chief of staff. Dole was not available for comment.
Dole was born in North Carolina. But she spent almost her entire adult life in Washington before establishing residency in her birth state in 2001 in order to run for Senate.
Anti-Washington sentiment amongst voters is running extremely high this year. Both Congress and the Bush administration have record low approval ratings, so being seen as too closely tied to the nation’s capital could be particularly damaging in this election.
Political analysts say the perception that Dole spent too much time in Washington and not enough time tending to the home fires is playing a role in her re-election bid.
Polls show the North Carolina Senate race has tightened in recent weeks. The Cook Political Report, a Washington newsletter, moved Dole’s race from “leans Republican” to “tossup” this week.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of the newsletter, wrote in her analysis of the race: “So, how exactly did Dole find herself in this predicament? First, while Dole certainly has a legislative record to tout, voters seem unaware of it. Second, no one disputes the charge that she didn’t spend enough time in the state during the first four years of her term.”
The travel records show Dole spent about two months in the state during her first year in office. Between 2004 and 2006 – when she was tapped by her colleagues to head up efforts to elect Senate Republicans – the records document a total of two months spent in North Carolina. As she geared up for re-election in 2007, she spent 50 days in the state, followed by 97 days so far this year.
To determine how much time Dole spent in the state, Media General News Service reviewed six years of Senate records that document dates of trips paid for by the government, and combed through press releases from her office and reviewed North Carolina newspaper clips.
Dole’s staff said that method does not offer an accurate picture, since trips paid for by Dole’s campaign or her personally would not show up in the records. The office did not always send out press releases when she returned to the state, and local newspapers did not always cover her visits, they said.
Media General repeatedly requested a more complete accounting of her North Carolina visits as reflected in the daily schedule kept by her Senate office, which includes both personal and political visits.
Dole’s office provided a full list of North Carolina visits from June 2007 until the present. Because of record-keeping issues, they said they were unable to locate her daily schedule for prior dates. If the schedule was available, it would likely show many more days spent in the state, they said.
“Unfortunately, we’re guilty until proven innocent in terms of how many days we spent there, because we can’t document every single trip with an airline receipt,” Nick said.
Dole’s long absence from North Carolina before returning to run for Senate makes the debate over how much time she spent here more politically perilous for Dole. During her 2002 campaign, critics called her a “carpetbagger.”
But her opponent, Erskine Bowles, did not press the issue as hard as he could have, political analysts said. Hagan has revived the line of an attack, part of her larger argument that Dole has been an ineffective representative for North Carolina.
“Kay was born here, has lived in Greensboro for more than 30 years, raised her family here and lives here now – there’s no worry that once elected she’ll leave North Carolina behind,” Flanagan said.
Hagan’s campaign has also questioned whether Dole truly lives in North Carolina. In 2001, Dole shifted her residence from a condo at the Watergate in Washington to her mother’s house in Salisbury, which she later purchased. Dole considers the Salisbury residence her home, Nick said.
But a review of the addresses Dole lists on public records show it’s not clear what she considers her official address. The address on her voter registration in North Carolina, for example, now lists her Salisbury home.
Until 2007, it listed the Watergate condo. And Federal Election Commission records of campaign contributions made by Dole alternately list her address as Salisbury and, as recently as this year, Washington.
North Carolina’s other Republican senator, Richard Burr, appears to return to North Carolina far more frequently than Dole. He spends virtually every day when Congress is not in session in the state, records show.
“My wife lives in North Carolina, her husband lives in Washington. As you try to balance personal and professional, you have to take into account your need to spend time with your family. My exposure in North Carolina would be totally different if my wife lived in Washington, D.C.,” he said, adding that he thought Dole had been an effective advocate for North Carolinians.
Dole’s campaign appears worried the time in the state attack could hurt her. A Dole TV commercial argues that Dole “went all over North Carolina” to work with sheriffs on an issue related to illegal immigration.
Sam Page, sheriff of Rockingham County, who has endorsed Dole, said she helped secure funding to train jail workers to better identify illegal immigrants.
“She didn’t just start talking to us last week, during the campaign season. She was involved early on,” he said.
And some who have worked with her office dispute the notion that there is a correlation between time in the state and effectiveness on issues of importance to North Carolina.
Larry Wooten, the president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, said Dole was an effective advocate on issues like the buyout of tobacco farmers and the farm bill, and has been helpful in disputes with the Dept. of Agriculture.
“She’s always been very responsive to our issues and very accessible,” he said. “When we have events, she comes to our events. But mainly, our needs from a senator are in Washington; she needs to be in Washington.”
Sean Mussenden can be reached at email@example.com or 202-662-7668
Documented Days Spent by Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina During Her First Term
2003 – 55
2004 – 34
2005 – 20
2006 – 13
2007 – 50
2008 (through Friday) – 97
-SOURCE: Senate Travel Records, Dole Campaign and Senate Office Press Releases, Senate Office Schedule, and North Carolina Newspaper Clips.