The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

N.C. Democrat frustrated with both parties after establishment backs her rival, GOP meddles in Senate primary

North Carolina Democrat Erica Smith, a candidate for U.S. Senate, says she feels she has been disrespected by both political parties. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Democrat Erica Smith, a two-term North Carolina state senator, was so inspired by women who beat the odds and won seats in Congress in 2018 that she decided to run in this year’s U.S. Senate race.

The party establishment chose another candidate.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Cal Cunningham, a former state lawmaker and an Army veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who had run unsuccessfully for the Senate a decade ago. Smith was disappointed but didn’t bow out, despite struggling to raise money and snare endorsements.

Then, a few weeks ago, Smith got an unexpected and unwelcome benefactor: a Republican-affiliated political action committee that started running ads touting Smith as the “true progressive,” while suggesting Cunningham does not support addressing climate change and LGBTQ rights.

The Post's Michelle Ye Hee Lee explains how some donors can contribute large sums of money to influence political campaigns without revealing their identities. (Video: The Washington Post)

Smith, 50, who is African American, says she feels she has been disrespected by both political parties: Republicans who are using her to damage the perceived front-runner in the primary and Democratic leaders who endorsed Cunningham because they didn’t think she could win.

“It’s an attack, using dark money on the dark woman candidate in this race,” Smith said in an interview. She denounced the ads and said she looked into whether she could legally force the PAC to stop running the spots. Smith is unhappy that party leaders have decried the ads as a smear against Cunningham but have made no public statements defending her as a loyal Democrat who was also targeted by Republicans. She is concerned that the silence of the Democratic leaders could leave the impression that she was working with the GOP.

“We want people to vote for us for our experience and credibility, not because of a GOP super PAC that tells them to,” said Smith, who argued that she has always worked to elect Democratic candidates and support the party’s agenda in the legislature.

Cunningham, 46, is favored to win Tuesday’s Democratic primary, which also includes two lesser-known candidates, and face Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in November. The seat is receiving special attention from national party leaders in their bid to retake the Senate.

Trump endorses Sen. Thom Tillis, who faces GOP primary in North Carolina

The Faith and Power PAC, created in January, has spent nearly $3 million to boost Smith’s candidacy, mostly running broadcast and digital ads. All of the group’s money has come from the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC run by Steven Law, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Law acknowledged that the ads were meant to force Democrats into an expensive primary fight and boasted that the move had been “more successful than we could have imagined.”

“Democrats are burning cash in a $13 million rescue mission for Cal Cunningham, who has proven to be a lackluster candidate with less money in the bank today than the beginning of the year,” Law said in a statement.

Smith and her supporters say she has been mistreated by both Republicans and Democrats, raising questions about race and electability against the backdrop of GOP mischief in a Democratic primary.

Jessica Byrd, a liberal activist and consultant who has been advising Smith’s campaign, said Democratic leaders should have defended Smith. “They should say, ‘Black women are not pawns in a game of chess and Republicans are demonstrating that they don’t take a valuable voice in our party seriously.’ Instead, they piled on her to exploit that moment for their own benefit.”

State and national party leaders, along with Cunningham, have said they’ve made clear that they blame the GOP and McConnell for the ad campaign, not Smith. But their statements have stopped short of giving Smith the absolution she is seeking.

“Cal condemned the Republican meddling immediately as did voters and leaders across North Carolina who don’t want Mitch McConnell interfering in a Democratic primary,” Rachel Petri, a spokeswoman for the Cunningham campaign, said via email Friday.

The North Carolina Democratic Party, which has not endorsed a candidate, has issued at least two news releases denouncing the ads.

The DSCC, in a news release last week, slammed McConnell’s “allies” for waging a “panicked effort to save weak incumbent Senator Thom Tillis from facing decorated veteran Cal Cunningham.”

“It’s deeply disrespectful to Democratic voters and the candidates that Mitch McConnell and his allies are trying to influence the Democratic primary to boost Thom Tillis, whose policies hurt working families across the state,” DSCC spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said in an emailed statement.

The relationship between Smith and party leaders has been frosty since the DSCC formally endorsed Cunningham, who had spent the first half of 2019 as a candidate for lieutenant governor. He switched to the Senate race in June. In a statement announcing the endorsement at the end of October, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), chairman of the campaign committee, noted that he had the endorsement of 140 political figures, community leaders and liberal groups. On Wednesday, he picked up the endorsement of former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder.

Math favors Senate Democrats in 2020, but geography gives GOP the advantage

Party leaders also pointed to Cunningham’s ability to raise money. His most recent campaign finance report shows he has raised more than $4.7 million and has $1.4 million cash on hand. He also has contributions from several members of the Senate, labor organizations and large PACs, including VoteVets. Outside groups have spent at least $9 million in support of Cunningham’s candidacy, according to Open Secrets.

Smith had hoped the Senate campaign committee would stay out of the race and not influence donors and supporters. Her campaign finance report shows she has raised $238,000, and her website lists endorsements from a dozen former and current elected officials and several political organizations in North Carolina. Some national groups focused on increasing the number of black elected officials also stepped up to help Smith and criticized party leaders.

“It’s unfortunate that a qualified black woman wasn’t given the same kind of consideration that a white [male candidate], but that’s what our politics are in the Democratic Party,” said Quentin James, co-founder of Collective PAC. He criticized Democrats for using “lazy polling to support a white man over a black woman in a state as diverse as North Carolina.”

Black people make up more than 21 percent of the state’s nearly 7 million voters, and they are nearly half the state’s registered Democrats.

Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights, which encourages black women to run for elected office, has endorsed Smith. The group is helping raise money and awareness of Smith’s campaign among black women.

“One of the biggest barriers for black women running for office is people putting out a narrative about electability,” Carr said.

Black female candidates often raise less money and don’t get early support from the party and liberal groups, but some have still managed to do well. In 2018, several black women upset incumbents or defied expectations to win seats in Congress, including Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and Lucy McBath (D-Ga.)

“We’ve seen in other election cycles where black women were able to overcome that,” Carr said, adding that she hopes voters don’t write off Smith.