North Carolina Democrats can rejoice: They finally have a candidate to take on Richard Burr! They had been searching for someone - anyone - all year now; after Attorney General Roy Cooper and Rep. Bob Etheridge’s decisions not to challenge the freshman senator, the DSCC was starting to get worried it would fail to recruit a challenger to the freshman senator.
At some point, some woman named Elaine Marshall attempted to trick the media into thinking that her credentials as a 13-year Secretary of State should get her treated as a legitimate contender - at the very least one worthy of being talked about. Thankfully, insightful journalists like Chris Cillizza saw through her imposture and banished her from the right of even being mentioned in posts discussing Democratic prospects in North Carolina’s Senate race. After all, why discuss Marshall’s chances of defeating Burr when it makes for a more compelling story to pretend that she doesn’t even exist?
The DSCC, which is obviously far more entitled to make a decision that they don’t want to treat a candidate seriously than is the press, long ago decided it wanted an alternative to Marshall. Their latest hope was former state Senator Cal Cunningham, who had already announced he would not run. Their pleas, and perhaps a pledge to help his campaign financially not only in the general election but also in the primary , must have been convincing.
There are now mounting reports that Cunningham has decided to reverse course and announce Senate plans in the days ahead. (He is delaying his announcement out of respect for Elaine Marshall, whose husband passed away this past week-end.)
Cunningham’s entry is being treated by some as a dramatic game-changer - one that drastically improves Democratic hopes of picking-up the seat. In particular, I keep reading comparisons to Kay Hagan, though the only parallel that is typically drawn is that both first ruled out a campaign before changing their minds. (If that was a strategy for electoral success, I think we’d know about it.) Yet, I think my readers know by now that I am not convinced this is much of a game-changer.
Most importantly, the comparisons to Hagan make little sense because the state Senator was the Democrats’ highest-profile candidate when she entered in 2008. Cunningham can certainly not be sure of making it to the general: He faces a 3-way primary between him, Marshall, and attorney Kenneth Lewis. A recent poll released by PPP found that Marshall led with 42% with 7% for Lewis and 5% for Cunningham; the survey suggested this was not just due to a name recognition differential, as the Secretary of State also led by as much among those who knew about all three contenders. Does this mean Cunningham cannot win the primary? Certainly not: Marshall’s failure to get to 50% against two lower profile opponents suggests she is vulnerable. But it will be enough of an uphill climb that it’s hard to justify treating him as Democrats’ savior.
(It’s hard to identify what the primary’s ideological fault lines. Marshall has the reputation of a relatively progressive politician, but as a Secretary of State she has not had to take stances on many polarizing issues. As for Cunningham and Lewis, I have not read much about their policy views so we will have to see the issues they put forth during the primary.)
Second, it remains to be seen whether Cunningham has what it takes to run a high-stake campaign. Not every low-profile candidate is Hagan; sure, the Democrats’ 2008 nominee benefited from the national environment and from the DSCC’s massive advertising commitment, but she did run a far feistier campaign than anyone could have expected. Cunningham will be helped by national Democrats’ desire to push him to the general election, but the 2006 and 2008 elections did show us that the DCCC tends to overestimate the electoral appeal of a candidate’s war experience.
Third, Marshall does have some obvious electability challenges - her relatively weak fundraising and the failures of her 2002 Senate campaign, as she lost in the Democratic primary against two prominent opponents - but she also brings assets, starting with the comfort factor voters would feel with a candidate they’ve elected statewide four times. (Full disclosure: I have no connection to Marshall’s campaign, nor am I paid by them, nor do I volunteer for them, nor do I live in North Carolina. The reason I harp on the treatment she has received so much is my frustration at the way in which some in the press have pretended like she does not exist.)
All of this said, there are clear reasons for Democrats to look forward to this primary: It will keep the party in the news and give the winner a much-needed publicity boost (in 2008, Kay Hagan vaulted into a tie with Elizabeth Dole in the immediate aftermath of her primary victory) and it will also give Democrats a chance to select their best candidate after testing their skills for a few months, though that requires an honest campaign which might not be possible given the way in which the race has been covered recently. Sure, there’s the potential for an ugly primary but it’s hard to see feelings hardening to such an extent between these contenders - not to mention that the contest will be decided relatively early, in May.