Monday Fix: Democratic establishment favorite may not be people's choice in N.C.

Despite little party support nationally, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall leads as a senatorial primary runoff nears.
Despite little party support nationally, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall leads as a senatorial primary runoff nears. (Photos By Gerry Broome/associated Press)
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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010

The focus of the political world over the past few months has been on anti-establishment Republican candidates winning Senate primaries in states such as Nevada and Kentucky. But Democrats aren't immune from that dynamic, either, as evidenced by the upcoming Senate runoff in North Carolina.

A week from Tuesday, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and former state senator Cal Cunningham will square off for the right to face Sen. Richard Burr (R) in the fall -- a not insignificant outcome, as national Democrats consider the race one of their best chances to pull off an upset in November's midterm elections.

Marshall has held her current office since she bested NASCAR legend Richard Petty in 1996. She finished first in the May 4 primary with 36 percent and Cunningham took 27 percent.

Throughout the primary campaign, however, it was clear that national Democrats thought Cunningham was the superior candidate. After he initially said no to the race, Cunningham was recruited again by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a move that led to considerable consternation in the Marshall camp.

Marshall, meanwhile, has demonstrated support in the state, including an endorsement from Ken Lewis, an African American lawyer who placed third in the primary, with 17 percent. By endorsing Marshall, Lewis went out of his way to scold Washington for "trying to exercise undue influence in our nominating process." (Lewis's endorsement could well matter in a state in which one in five residents -- and a far larger segment of the Democratic electorate -- is black.)

There is little disagreement on issues between Marshall and Cunningham, a point noted by state and national observers after their debate last Thursday. The conversation before the runoff has thus revolved around electability.

Cunningham's forces argue that Marshall is not ready for a high-profile campaign. They point to a debate moment in which she paused for eight seconds before answering whether she would ever vote for an increase in the federal income tax.

Pete Giangreco, a Cunningham adviser, called that a "real deer-in-the-headlights moment" and a "metaphor for the whole primary race." He added: "That would be the first eight seconds of the first Burr ad against her, and that would likely define the race."

Thomas Mills, a Marshall consultant, projected supreme confidence about the runoff. "Marshall will be the nominee," he said, adding that she "matches up well with Burr, giving voters a clear choice in November."

Although national Democrats have clearly played favorites in the race, they insist that Burr is vulnerable, regardless of who wins.

They cite polls that show Burr's job-approval ratings lingering in the mid- to upper 30s, -- a sign that if an anti-Washington strain in the electorate truly exists, he could fall. (The other Republican incumbents whom Democrats think can be beaten are Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Chuck Grassley of Iowa.)

But Burr, perhaps spooked by the defeat of then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) in 2008, has stayed vigilant, particularly with fundraising. Through mid-April, he had nearly $5 million in the bank; Cunningham had $345,000 and Marshall showed $171,000.

To be competitive against Burr, national Democrats will need to make up the certain financial difference between him and their nominee, a prospect that Republicans insist will never come to pass. "Washington Democrats won't spend money in North Carolina because they know what [2004 Democratic Senate nominee] Erskine Bowles knows: No one works harder or smarter for North Carolina than Richard Burr," said Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

One senior Democratic strategist acknowledged Burr's vulnerabilities but noted in an e-mail that "There is not the same 'heat' against Burr that there was against Dole, the political environment this year in N.C. and the nation is more toxic to Democrats." The strategist added, "The question is: Is the one Republican seat we are going to take back going to be in the South?"

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