Democrats may need to invest more money in their N.C. Senate pick

Establishment Democrats will do their best to make former North Carolina state Sen. Cal Cunningham into the next Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). But the more apt comparison, for now, might be thousands of miles northwest.


If Democrats want Cunningham to make the race against Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), it might take the kind of primary boost they gave Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) last year.

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As with Merkley and Hagan two years ago, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has made its choice known early in a second-tier race, and it’s a relatively unknown state lawmaker with a profile the party believes in. But while Hagan sailed in her primary and went on to defeat Sen.

Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) in 2008, Cunningham could face a Merkley-esque primary first.

“The DSCC, if it truly believes Cunningham is going to be the strongest candidate, may have to invest in that primary,” said Ferrel Guillory, a professor at the University of North Carolina and longtime political writer in the state. “That comes at the risk of some discontent and fracturing of the Democratic Party.”

That’s a risk the DSCC has been willing to take. Especially in a state like North Carolina, where it faces an increasingly tough environment against Burr, getting the right candidate is key.

Against Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), the party spent significantly to usher Merkley past liberal activist Steve Novick. Novick led in the polls heading right up to primary day, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in DSCC spending provided a big boost to the modestly funded Merkley campaign.

North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall’s viability stems more from her name recognition than from her ideology or her money. But in a low-profile Democratic Senate primary, being the only one with statewide experience and being the only woman on the ballot — attorney Kenneth Lewis is also running — could pay dividends with the Democratic electorate.

A poll conducted for Marshall’s campaign recently showed her with 42 percent of the vote, while the lesser-known candidates were in the single digits — Lewis at 7 percent and Cunningham at 5.

“When you look at who’s going to turn out historically, that’s a good indication,” Marshall said of her poll.

The poll Cunningham’s supporters would prefer to emphasize is the one conducted on primary day 2002, when Marshall finished a dismal third in another Senate primary. Marshall wound up with just 15 percent of the vote, lagging far behind former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former state House Speaker Dan Blue.

While Marshall is agreeable to plenty of Democrats, party insiders would prefer to have someone with a little more sizzle in an uphill race. Cunningham, as a young, one-term state senator who recently served a year in Iraq, fits that mold.

Cunningham initially said no to the campaign, but after Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) declined to run, heavy lobbying from the national party lured Cunningham back into the fray. As in both North Carolina and Oregon in 2008, Cunningham entered the race only after several more well-known candidates took a pass.

Cunningham said he likes his chances the way the primary field has shaken out.

“We didn’t see a path to victory a month ago that I think exists today,” he said, explaining his Nov. 10 decision not to run.
Cunningham denied he has been promised anything from party officials to reconsider the race. But a source close to his campaign confirmed that the national party will help it get off the ground, staff up and provide guidance.

“It’s a profile-builder,” the source said. “That’s an indictment by the party establishment and activists that the candidates they had weren’t getting it done for them.”

Marshall’s campaign has fought back angrily against the establishment’s meddling in the race, calling Cunningham the candidate of D.C., rather than N.C.
Marshall consultant Thomas Mills noted that Marshall was badly outspent in her 2002 primary, but said he doesn’t expect a similarly lopsided money race this time.

“Erskine Bowles, by the time of the primary, had spent $5 million; he was running a general-election campaign,” Mills said. “I don’t think Cunningham gets $5 million.”

Money will also be key for Marshall. She raised just more than $100,000 in the third quarter, but she didn’t start fundraising until the final weeks. This quarter, her campaign felt it got off to a good start before her husband died last month.

Now the campaign is faced with explaining what is likely to be a poor number next month.

“This next quarter is not going to be exactly what I intended because of some personal issues,” Marshall acknowledged.

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How much the DSCC does in the race will depend on how close the primary winds up being and how much of a chance it sees Cunningham having in the general election against Burr. The incumbent’s approval ratings leave something to be desired, but his standing in the 2010 race has improved as things have gotten better for Republicans.

If the primary remains crowded, the candidates will need to achieve a 40 percent threshold to avoid a runoff. That could be a consideration for the campaigns, particularly if Lewis can get some traction as the lone African-American candidate in the race.

“My path to victory is unchanged,” Lewis said. “I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing for the last five months.”