IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

N.C. Senate runoff poses test for Democrats

The results of Tuesday's N.C. Senate primary contest will reach all the way to the Democratic establishment in Washington, which has taken a side.
Image: Senate Holds Hearing On Proposed \"Promoting Electric Vehicles Act of 2010\"
Sen. Richard Burr participates in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on June 23 in Washington.Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: Politics Daily

You might not know it from all the attention Nikki Haley is getting, but on Tuesday, the other Carolina is also headed for a runoff election. North Carolina Democrats will not just be choosing a candidate to challenge incumbent first-term Republican Sen. Richard Burr in the fall. The results of Elaine Marshall vs. Cal Cunningham will reach all the way to the Democratic establishment in Washington, which has taken a side.

In the May 4 primary, Secretary of State Marshall finished first with 36 percent of the vote, shy of the 40 percent needed to prevent a runoff, which was called for by Cunningham, the 36-year-old former state senator who is backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He finished second at 27 percent.

After a mixed record in the primaries – a success with Sen. Blanche Lincoln over Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in Arkansas but a defeat of chosen candidate Sen. Arlen Specter by Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania – Washington Democrats will be watching Tuesday's results carefully. The campaign committee recruited Cunningham — his military background and youthful profile no doubt seen as a plus – and bypassed Marshall, who finished a disappointing third in the 2002 Senate primary. Marshall campaign spokesman Sam Swartz said, "I think they've misread what the people of North Carolina want."

As the Tuesday runoff draws closer, the biggest challenge may be energizing voters. Turnout was low in May and may shrink to 100,000 (nearly 462,000 voted on primary day). Vacation season has started and the hot, muggy weather has everyone moving a little slowly -- well, except for Marshall and Cunningham, who have been making last-minute appearances across the state.

While their attacks focus on the policies of Burr — a staunch conservative whose confidence belies the middling favorability numbers he gets from voters — the campaigns have grown increasingly harsh toward each other. On most issues, such as opposition to oil drilling off the N.C. coastline, the two agree. (An exception is the troop surge in Afghanistan, which Marshall opposes and Iraq veteran Cunningham supports.)

So the election has come down to a tale of two narratives. For the Cunningham camp, it's the fresh, energetic face vs. the career politician. Marshall's supporters see it as a proven public servant vs. an untested quantity. The candidates prefer to stay above the fray and concentrate on Burr, leaving it to campaign surrogates to supply the tougher talk.

Marshall strategist Thomas Mills says, "I don't think voters are looking for something new and shiny, they're looking for someone they can trust." Cunningham campaign spokesman Jared Leopold talks about voter "fatigue" with career politicians and the "need for new blood to shake things up," a message he says the candidate is hearing among state voters.

When the Cunningham campaign criticizes Marshall's performance in two debates, particularly an eight-second pause when asked whether she would back an increase in the federal income tax (she hesitated before saying she is in favor of letting the Bush tax cuts expire), Mills counters that Marshall is "authentic," not a "walking talking point," with every word "poll-tested."

Cunningham has the support and money from Washington. Retired general Wesley Clark's weekend e-mail blast said, "Cal Cunningham is without a doubt the best Democrat to beat Richard Burr this November." and Democracy for America prefer Marshall, with the latter group saying "she's proven herself a leader, speaking out on civil rights, healthcare reform and more."

In these last days before the election, both candidates have turned to a strong part of the state's Democratic base by visiting churches and organizations with substantial black membership.

A Friday stop on Cunningham's "Beat Burr" tour took him to Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte where the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund was honoring Franklin McCain, one of the Greensboro Four lunch counter demonstrators, and his wife, Bettye.

"In this year, voters are looking for a fresh face and new energy and new ideas, and I bring to this race a unique series of life experiences, not the least of which is that I would be the first Iraq war veteran elected to the United States Senate," he told me before the event. Cunningham, an attorney who prosecuted contractor criminal misconduct in Iraq, said some of the issues he cares about are campaign finance reform, "cleaning up our air and our water," investing in education (he is endorsed by the North Carolina Association of Educators) and working on job growth.

Cunningham said, "I'm the new guy" and "I'm very proud to say I'm with the president," proclaiming both his "outsider" status and his national support. "I believe that North Carolina Democrats will settle this primary," he said, "but I also believe that you don't go up against a tough Republican incumbent like Richard Burr without all the firepower that this party can bring to bear."

Isaac Applewhite, North Carolina legal defense fund committee member, said, "You have two well-qualified individuals," before adding that he has seen Cal Cunningham "eyeball to eyeball" five times in the last seven months.

Earlier in the week, Marshall was spending Sunday in church, at three predominantly African-American congregations. At her second stop, Charlotte's Little Rock A.M.E. Zion – with the slogan "A Serious Church for Serious Times" – Pastor Dwayne Anthony Walker told me, "If there are candidates who want to visit, we welcome them." He said he tries to be "holistic," tending to his congregation "spiritually, socially, economically and politically." Walker said of Marshall, perhaps dropping a hint of his preference, "We wish her much success in her campaign." In brief remarks, Marshall urged church members to express their freedom at the ballot box.

After the primary, Ken Lewis, an African American attorney who placed third in that race with 17 percent, threw his support to Marshall. Lewis, who told me before he got in the race, "I'm not someone who asks for permission from Washington to run," has criticized the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for "trying to exercise undue influence in our nominating process."

Before the church service, Marshall told me she is proud of her support among black officials. "They know me, know who I am and what I stand for," she said. "I've faced challenges as their constituents have faced challenges. I have worked shoulder to shoulder on common problems of injustice and inequality in education."

Marshall talked about her record as secretary of state. "I've taken on and stood up for the people of North Carolina against special interests," she said, pointing to hundreds of millions of dollars that she recovered from Wall Street banks for North Carolina investors and foundations. Marshall, also an attorney, has worked with state legislators to protect senior pensioners against scam artists, she said. "Public service," she said, "it's just what I do."

Though they say they are taking no vote for granted, both candidates are looking past Tuesday to the general election. Cunningham told me he is gearing up to meet Burr on the general election campaign trail, to debate him on his record. Marshall's campaign is looking forward to Washington Democrats "joining us on the other side of this runoff."

The latest polls show Richard Burr – who is sitting on a $5 million campaign war chest — leading both potential opponents. The incumbent told me before he easily won his GOP primary that he is confident he will be re-elected in November.

Both Cal Cunningham and Elaine Marshall are fighting him and each other up to the last minute for the chance to prove him wrong.