Everything you need to know before tonight's North Carolina senate debate

Senator Richard Burr and Deborah Ross (official photos)

It's a high profile race that could decide control of the Senate. The relatively inexperienced former State Representative Deborah Ross is trying to unseat incumbent Richard Burr and the two are slated to meet for their first and only debate tonight, moderated by ABC's Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl.

But in a race that Republicans originally thought would be a safe battleground hold and an easy victory, Burr hasn't had such luck. The latest polls out of the Tar Heel State show a tightening race between Burr and Ross. And Burr has faced criticism even from his own party for not taking the race seriously because of his laid-back approach, declaring he wasn't focused on being a candidate until October, perhaps underestimating Ross' campaign.

The Issues

There are plenty of state-specific issues in this race, but both Burr and Ross have also had to answer questions about their respective party's presidential nominees. Burr has stuck by Donald Trump even after the video of him making lewd comments about women surfaced, and he recently joined Trump's national security advisory team.

Ross supports Hillary Clinton and has campaigned with her around North Carolina. She's been asked about Clinton's use of a private email server to conduct State Department business, and has answered by saying, "I would have told her to her face that she was wrong. Make no mistake, what she did with those emails was inappropriate."

In terms of issues within the state, Ross and Burr have both had to weigh in on House Bill 2, the so-called "bathroom bill" which requires transgender individuals to use the public restroom or other facility that corresponds to their gender at birth.

Ross opposes HB2 and has highlighted the fact that companies and national organizations such as the NBA and PayPal have withdrawn business from the state, citing their concerns with the law.

Burr has said that he believes the law is "far too expansive" and has also said he would prefer it if the bill had never been passed.

The Burr campaign and outside Republican groups have slammed Ross for her tenure as the executive director of the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union, where she voiced concerns about a 1995 bill establishing a state sex offender registry, noting it might "make it even harder for people to reintegrate into society and start over and could lead to vigilantism."

Meanwhile Ross and her allies have slammed Burr as a consummate Washington insider, having spent two decades in the House and Senate. They have highlighted the fact that he was one of only three senators to have voted against the STOCK Act, which prevented lawmakers from trading on non-public information they received in their capacity as members of Congress.

Why it Matters

North Carolina is considered a swing state given then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's win in the Tar Heel State in 2008. If Ross does well, it could be a good harbinger for Hillary Clinton on election night.

Burr faces reelection in a state that is locked in a tight presidential race with recent polls showing Clinton with 46 percent of support and Trump with 43 percent of the vote. North Carolina has leaned right in presidential elections since the early 1990s, voting for the Republican nominee in five of the last six races. The one exception came in 2008 Obama defeated Sen. John McCain by just 0.32 percentage points. In the last election, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney received 50.4 percent of the vote to Obama's 48.4 percent.

With several vulnerable seats up for grabs in the U.S. Senate in the 2016 election, the two major parties are locked in a tight battle for control of Congress' upper chamber this November.

ABC News ratings show control of the Senate will be a close contest in November: Republicans will likely finish with at least 49 seats and Democrats, likely 47 seats - with the four remaining seats rated as pure toss-ups.

Where the Race Stands


Polling in the state continues to show that Tar Heel State voters are relatively evenly split in all three major races in the state: the Senate, gubernatorial and presidential elections. ABC News has rated the race between Burr and Ross as a toss-up.

With Clinton holding a slight but steady lead in North Carolina over Trump and a high-profile governor's race also on the ballot, this could be a key bellwether state for both the Senate and the presidency.

ABC News' Ryan Struyk contributed to this report.
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politicsrichard burrdeborah rossRaleigh
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