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In North Carolina, it’s déjà vu all over again

In North Carolina, Democrats are facing a remarkably similar situation to what they faced two years ago. The question is: Is Elaine Marshall their Kay HaganKay Ruthven Hagan2020 Dems compete for top campaign operatives Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Politics is purple in North Carolina MORE?

Following Rep. Mike McIntyre’s (D-N.C.) decision this past week not to run against Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrDems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism Collusion judgment looms for key Senate panel The National Trails System is celebrating 50 years today — but what about the next 50 years? MORE (R-N.C.), Secretary of State Marshall (D) now looks like the favorite in one of the last leading Senate races that is still without a challenger. Her political adviser wagers that she’s leaning toward running, and Democrats are running out of big-name options.
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That adviser, Thomas Mills, said Marshall provides something the other prospective candidates don’t because she’s run statewide four times, including for Senate in 2002.

“She knows what she needs to do to make this race,” Mills said. “Candidates tend to get in not knowing what they’re getting into. She has no illusions about what it takes to get into this race.”

But even though Marshall is a statewide officeholder who has run for Senate before, she has name recognition that is below 50 percent. And her poor performance in the 2002 Senate primary – she finished third in a crowded field with just 15 percent – probably won’t scare off anybody.

Still, thanks to the decisions of state Attorney General Roy Cooper and a few members of the state’s congressional delegation to pass on the race, Marshall appears next in line.

Nobody is getting terribly excited about her candidacy, but nobody was terribly excited two years ago either, after a similar cast of characters passed on a challenge to Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).

Chris Hayes, who is senior legislative analyst at the conservative public policy group Civitas, said Marshall can hardly be counted out after then-state Sen. Hagan’s out-of-nowhere defeat of Dole.

“If you had asked me a couple years ago, my answer would have been different,” Hayes said. “But last year changed a lot of perceptions about the way things can happen.”

Hayes said Burr’s political situation is almost a carbon copy of Dole’s from two years ago. Dole was better-known thanks to her previous work and her presidential candidate husband, but she still carried lackluster numbers into her first reelection race.

Burr has been the next incumbent on Democrats’ recruiting wish list, thanks to polling that has repeatedly shown many North Carolinians don’t know him. Among those who do, Burr’s numbers are not spectacular.

Civitas has consistently shown Burr’s favorability in the 30s, with his unfavorable numbers in the teens. Another North Carolina-based firm, Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP), has shown him still in the 30s but with higher unfavorables.

Marshall has polled third-best in head-to-head matchups tested by PPP, but despite her four terms as Secretary of State, she is known to fewer voters than Burr. PPP recently had her at 28 percent favorable and 19 unfavorable, while Civitas had her at 12 percent favorable and 7 percent unfavorable.

While Marshall holds a prominent title, she’s even less known as a three-term statewide officeholder than McIntyre, who is one of 13 members of Congress in the state.

PPP spokesman Tom Jensen said the name ID problem has everything to do with the number of statewide offices in North Carolina.

“What’s weird about North Carolina is we elect 10 state constitutional offices, while most state’s elect only four of them,” he said. “There’s a lot more clutter to cut through.”

Marshall received the second-highest vote total among Democrats in the state last year, being reelection with 58 percent. She defeated famous stock car driver Richard Petty (R) to win her seat in 1996.

In 2002, she raised less than $1 million for the Senate race, while the Democratic establishment embraced former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.

So even if Marshall gets in, she’s hardly a favorite. Others weighing the race include former state Sen. Cal Cunningham and attorney Kenneth Lewis, who raised a respectable $115,000 in the second quarter.

Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy also told The Hill on Friday that he is considering the race. Foy would count on his experience as chairman of the state’s Metropolitan Mayors Commission, in which he represents the interests of the North Carolina’s 25 largest cities around the state.

He said the wide-open nature of the primary and the recent Democratic gains are inviting to lesser-known Democratic candidates.

“I think the way the state is changing might present an opportunity for somebody who has a contemporary vision of where this state’s going,” Foy said.