Just like every other state, North Carolina has two delegates to the U.S. Senate. They’ve often punched way above their weight in power and influence.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who are North Carolina’s current senators?

North Carolina currently has two Republican senators serving in Washington: Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.

North Carolina’s senior senator is Richard Burr.

Burr was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 after defeating Democrat Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff under President Clinton. That came after a decade in the U.S. House, and Burr has since been re-elected twice. He has said he will not run again in 2022.

In his time in the Senate, he’s developed into one of the most influential people in foreign policy and intelligence, serving as chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Burr is from Winston-Salem and is a distant relative of Aaron Burr. Yes, that Aaron Burr.

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, left. Photo by Daniel Wilkinson via Flickr (Creative Commons).

North Carolina’s junior senator is Thom Tillis.

Tillis is a former speaker of the North Carolina House and won his current office by unseating Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014.

The Cornelius native has been building a reputation in the Republican Party as a politician not beholden to President Trump. He’s defended the special counsel investigating ties to Russia.

Photo by Thom Tillis via Facebook

When are North Carolina’s senators elected?

Every six years.

The most recent election was 2016, when Sen. Burr was re-elected 51% to 45% over Democrat Deborah Ross.

The next U.S. Senate election in North Carolina will be in 2020, when Sen. Tillis’s seat is up for grabs.

Are North Carolina’s senators always Republican?

Nope. Burr’s seat has alternated between Democrats and Republicans since the 1970s. Before Burr, it was held by Democrats including John Edwards and Terry Sanford, interspersed with Republicans including Lauch Faircloth and John East.

The other seat has been fairly solidly Republican in that time period — though Sen. Hagan held a six-year term after being elected in the Democratic wave of 2008 that ushered in President Barack Obama.

Who is North Carolina’s best-known senator?

That would have to be Jesse Helms. Known as “Senator No,” Helms served 30 years in the U.S. Senate (1973 to 2003) and more or less built the conservative movement within the Republican Party.

The Monroe native remains perhaps the most controversial figure in North Carolina political history. He used unapologetically racist tactics in some of his campaigns and led a 16-day filibuster to prevent a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King. He was a staunch social conservative who opposed abortion and communism.

Helms was also tremendously effective and influential, leading the agriculture and foreign relations committees during parts of his tenure. He also was a driving force behind modern political campaign strategy.

Sen. Jesse Helms. Photo via the East Carolina University library.

Who else of note has served as U.S. senator from North Carolina?

John Edwards. Elected in 1998, Edwards went on to run for president and ultimately became John Kerry’s running mate in 2004. He was a rising Democratic star before being felled by an extramarital affair and the cover-up.

Sam Ervin. Ervin is best known for his role in ending the “Red Scare” campaign led by Joe McCarthy and for leading the Watergate investigation that led to the impeachment of President Nixon.

Terry Sanford. A liberal icon of the 1960s, Sanford was also governor of North Carolina, a close friend of John F. Kennedy, a long-time president of Duke University and a two-time candidate for president of the United States.

Frank Porter Graham. Best known as the first president of the consolidated UNC System, Graham served a year in the Senate after being appointed by Gov. Kerr Scott.

Cover photo of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis by Gage Skidmore via Flickr (Creative Commons)


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