Marshall tops Cunningham in N.C. Senate runoff

Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall has defeated former state Sen. Cal Cunningham in North Carolina's Senate runoff, according to the Associated Press.

Marshall has 61 percent of the vote to Cunningham's 39 percent, with less than 20 percent of the state's counties officially reporting results.

After Marshall finished first in the May 4 primary — she beat Cunningham 36 percent to 27 percent — the race became an exercise in motivating and mobilizing voters for what was always expected to be a low turnout runoff.

In the closing days, the focus was more on style than substance. Cunningham traversed the state on an 18-stop "Beat Burr" bus tour, making the case to voters that he would be the more viable Democrat against Sen. Richard Burr (R) in the fall. Marshall painted herself as the anti-establishment candidate and worked to focus attention on Cunningham's backing from national Democrats.

Marshall adviser Thomas Mills said since the primary, the campaign has been able to galvanize support by playing the anti-establishment card. "I don't think the folks at the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] realize how angry our supporters are down here," Mills said ahead of Tuesday's vote.

The policy differences between Marshall and Cunningham weren't exactly sharp. The only issue the two had a definite break on was the war in Afghanistan. Cunningham, an Iraq veteran, warned against a premature withdrawal of American troops from the country, while Marshall made clear her opposition to President Barack Obama's decision to send additional troops to the country.

It was largely Marshall's stance on Afghanistan that earned her the backing of liberal groups like MoveOn and Democracy for America. But that same dynamic played into Cunningham's electability argument. To really put the seat in play come November, national Democrats believe they need a candidate who can credibly run toward the center. 

The DSCC did not make an official public endorsement in the race, but it's not much of a secret that Cunningham was their preferred candidate from the start. The committee played a hand in convincing Cunningham to run for the seat last year, and several sitting Democratic senators sent money Cunningham's way.

Just after Marshall's win became official, the DSCC sent around a memo from North Carolina-based pollster Tom Jensen that touted Marshall's general-election prospects. "Democrats got their more electable candidate for the fall by nominating Elaine Marshall to run against Richard Burr tonight," Jensen wrote. 

The pollster noted that Marshall has consistently performed better than Cunningham in Public Policy Polling's hypothetical general-election match-ups against Burr every month since August. "Marshall is looking considerably more competitive against Richard Burr at this point in the election cycle than Kay Hagan did against Elizabeth Dole two years ago," the memo said.

For Marshall, the question now is how much money will come from the national party for the general election. If Democrats are serious about putting the seat in play, their nominee will need some real financial help, even in a year where a handful of other states offer Democrats better pick-up opportunities.

Despite Burr's weak poll numbers, he boasts a hefty campaign account. The Republican incumbent had just shy of $5 million cash on hand according to his most recent FEC filing.

— Updated at 8:53 p.m.