North Carolina’s Senate primary takes shape

Elaine Marshall, Cal Cunningham and Kenneth Lewis have not occupied jobs from which they would take high-profile stances on controversial issues, so their ideological profiles aren’t clear at all at this point of North Carolina’s Senate campaign. Yet, despite my early sense that there would be few substantive faultlines in this Democratic primary, it looks like the candidates are looking to position themselves differently after all.

In an interview with RealClearPolitics, Cunningham sounds the notes of what looks like a cautious, centrist campaign. He in particular praises the escalation in Afghanistan and he seems to be emphasizing the fact that if he were in the Senate now he wouldn’t commit to more than voting to “start” debate on the health-care bill. [Update: Both these issues contrast him with Marshall. Not only has she long come out in favor of a public option, but she has released a statement opposing the president's Afghan surge.]

What is striking to me in Cunningham’s position is not that he is crafting himself a moderate image, but that he is doing so while facing a uphill Democratic primary in which he needs to get a lot of traction; the one poll released so far has him coming in third, trailing Marshall by 37%. (As a side note: It is fairly silly for The Hill to compare this primary to last year’s Novick-Merkey as an example of DSCC officials taking a candidate who was trailing and carrying him to victory. In that case, Merkey was the elected official while Novick was an activist, so the former faced far easier a climb while the latter’s early lead had come at a surprise.)

How would he position himself in the general election if he is sounding such notes at the beginning of the Democratic primary? It goes without saying that NC is no staunch blue state, but let’s not forget Creigh Deeds’s failings: Facing a disaffected base, Deeds mounted too centrist a campaign to build a winning electoral coalition and he distanced himself from Barack Obama to such an absurd extent as to give up his best resources to turn out NoVa. As a statewide official, Marshall has been able to find a balance between appealing beyond the base while motivating her party; we’ll have to watch to see whether Cunningham can avoid repeating Deeds’s mistakes.

As importantly, how does Cunningham expect to overcome his early deficit if not by running the type of insurgent campaign candidates typically mount to overcome better-known front-runners? The answer here seems evident: He is expecting heavy support from the Democratic establishment. We have long known that the DSCC distrusts Marshall and that it played a leading role in recruiting Cunningham to the race months after Marshall’s entry. It looked probable national Democrats had promised him financial help to beat the Secretary of State, and we are now getting more confirmation of that in the form of a local TV news segment that reports the DSCC might be preparing to spend “millions” to help Cunningham beat Marshall.

I’ll let you decide whether that would be a good use of DSCC money considering how much work the committee has to undertake to save Democratic seats in Colorado, Nevada, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania - not to mention to have a shot at promising open seats in Missouri, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio. After all, we haven’t even heard the DSCC spend much time touting Kendrick Meek, which might be a good idea considering the fact that the GOP primary is increasingly certain to be a blood bath.

Faced with the threat of the DSCC taking action against her, Marshall is looking to play the card played by so many Republicans around the country: Bemoaning the national party’s involvement against local activists’ wishes. As an establishment figure herself, Marshall is obviously far less credible voicing that argument than are the likes of Pat Hughes, of Ken Buck and of The Union-Leader; in particular, it remains to be seen whether she can indeed attract the clear support of local activists and whether she’ll be able to raise enough money to mount a solid campaign if the DSCC moves to cut her fundraising network.

Yet, for now Marshall is at least managing to get some good publicity out of the situation, as the TV news segments I linked above attest to, and she is also drawing positive attention from progressive blogs. Marshall is very far from becoming a blogosphere darling - Cunningham’s allies are still gunning to get him to occupy that position - but if she succeeds in that direction it could help her ensure she has some resources and help prevent her rivals’ from gaining momentum too quickly.

Two Dems who voted against the health-care bill face primaries

I confess I am spending a disproportionate amount of time covering this race, so let’s move on to other interesting Democratic primaries - starting with that pitting Rep. Allen Boyd and state Senator Al Lawson: I wrote last week that the latter had opened the door to dropping out of the race to run for statewide office, but Lawson quickly backtracked, ruled out running for CFO and confirmed he would take on the conservative incumbent. Given that Lawson was already facing difficulties fundraising, this won’t help him make the case that he is committed to this primary but he can at least point out that it’s not like he has anything to fall back on since he is term-limited out of the legislature next year.

Boyd’s response is as bizarre as it gets. He is now airing a TV ad touting his efforts to reform health care - from ending a cap on lifetime benefits to putting a ban on preexisting conditions. The catch: He voted against the health-care bill last month! Yet, his ad is a reminder of the sort of financial advantage incumbents enjoy since Lawson certainly can’t match Boyd’s ability to air ads 9 months from the primary.

In GA-08, meanwhile, Rep. John Barrow is facing a rematch of his 2008 primary against state Sen. Regina Thomas, who just announced she’d try again in 2010. In this swing district whose population is 44% African-American, Thomas attracted a fair amount of attention last year and she worried Barrow enough that the incumbent got Barack Obama to cut an aid helping him; yet, Barrow ended up triumphing 74% to 26%. That makes it hard to see how Thomas could pull off a victory this year, let alone a competitive race, but she could try getting traction over Barrow’s vote against the health-care bill last month.

6 Responses to “North Carolina’s Senate primary takes shape”

  1. 1 Panos

    I know it’s not ver relevant, but if any more articles like Matt Taibi’s get published the next months, then Jesus himself won’t save the Democrats.

  2. 2 Guy

    Taniel - I don’t consider your attention to this race as dispropotionate, but then I live in NC!

    Seriously though this race does highlight national parties annoiting a candidate (even undeclared ones sometimes) and pushing them. It is also a battle in a new swing state that will be a battle ground again in 2012. So North Carolina is worthy of more attention than some other races next year.

  3. 3 Maurice

    I’ve wondered recently–is what Lawson did becoming a campaign strategy? It attracts attention, and shows that you are committed to the race (generally). That’s rather ironic, isn’t it?

  4. 4 Taniel

    Panos, you are certainly right about the Taibbi article; important to point out that this piece is likely to speak to the left rather than to centrists, so that narrative should do more to depress the liberal base than to drive independents towards the GOP.

    Thanks for the encouragement Guy! I’ll keep it up then; there’s something fascinating about this race.

    Maurice, are you thinking of other candidates who have done what Lawson did?

  5. 5 Maurice

    I can’t think of any names at the moment, but one of Kirkpatick’s challengers did this last year and got a good bounce.

    And it now looks like Republicans may not field a candidate for RI governor at all, so Chaffee can probably do what he wants, but I don’t know if he has an advantage yet.

    And I highly doubt that Abercrombie’s resignation will do anything for the “touted” GOP candidate. Any opinion?

  6. 6 Jaxx Raxor

    Maurice, it seems really suprising for the Republicans to field no one at all in RI considering the strong track record Republicans have had with the governorship but I guess RI is too Democratic for them to be overcome. I agree that the real race will be against Chafee and whoever the Democrats nominee is. There has been little attention to this race compared to others so we can’t know for sure.

    In terms of Abercrombie’s resignation, according to swingstate project in a special election in Hawaii its all candidate ballot and the person with the pluarity wins the seat outright, that could potentially help Djou as he is the only Republican in the race while there are two Democrats, Case and Hanabusa. On the other hand, Case is considered a moderate/conservative Democrat and could potentially split the center-right vote with Djou. We need to see polling of this first to see what the chances are for Djou slipping through, but seeing as how Case is seen very negavitely by the Hawaii Democratic establishment I feel that this race is only somewhat more likely to go Republican.

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