Dems angle for strongest candidate

Cunningham is party's favorite

Staff writerApril 27, 2010 

— Some of the leading Democratic senators are wading into the May 4 North Carolina Democratic Senate primary, hoping to hoist Cal Cunningham into the fall election against Republican Sen. Richard Burr.

Cunningham, a former state senator and Iraq war veteran, was recruited into the race by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has provided him with advice and financial help. This has given an advantage to Cunningham, who is in a competitive primary with Democrats Elaine Marshall and Ken Lewis.

"It is unusual, but it happens," Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, assistant Senate majority leader, said in an interview while in Raleigh over the weekend.

"The decision was made that Cunningham had the best chance to succeed," Durbin said. "The voters in North Carolina have the final word in this. They will decide in the primary and in November. Of course, we will stand behind the party's choice, whoever that might be."

The backing of the national party is one reason Cunningham has the fundraising lead in the Democratic primary. The lead has enabled Cunningham to be the only Democrat to air TV commercials during the past two weeks. Marshall, the secretary of state, introduced a TV ad Monday, but it has yet to be broadcast. Lewis, a Chapel Hill lawyer, began broadcasting his first radio ad Monday.

As of April 14, Cunningham had raised $730,200 in the campaign, compared to $514,541 for Marshall, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Lewis had raised about $456,000 by April 14, his campaign estimated.

All that pales compared to Burr, who has raised $6 million, and who has been running TV commercials longer than any of the Democrats.

The Democratic senators, through their leadership political action committees, gave Cunningham at least $36,000 in contributions during the first quarter, according to FEC reports.

The Lexington lawyer received money from the leadership PACs of Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska ($2,000), Thomas Carper of Delaware ($5,000), Carl Levin of Michigan ($2,000), Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico ($2,000), Robert Menendez of New Jersey ($5,000), Kent Conrad of North Dakota ($5,000), Mark Warner of Virginia ($5,000) and Durbin ($5,000).

The senatorial committee's support has likely helped Cunningham get the backing from other interest groups with close Democratic ties such as the N.C. Association of Educators, the Sierra Club and the Teamsters.

"The word gets out that candidate X is the committee's preferred nominee," said Jennifer Duffy, senior political editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report. "That does help line up support."

Washington interests

Cunningham's opponents have sought to make the national party's backing a negative. Both Marshall and Lewis have portrayed Cunningham as the candidate of Washington interests.

"They obviously don't understand North Carolina very well, do they?" said Thomas Mills, Marshall's campaign spokesman.

Even so, Democratic candidates blessed by the senatorial committee have a history of winning, in part because they are better financed. In recent elections, Duffy said, the senatorial committee has helped elect Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Jeff Merkley of Oregon in competitive Democratic primaries.

The backing of national parties in Senate races has become increasingly important in recent years. The Democratic Senatorial Committee recruited Kay Hagan into the 2008 Senate contest and pumped $10 million into the race, helping her defeat Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

Burr was recruited to run for the Senate in 2004 by Karl Rove, then the chief political adviser for President George W. Bush, who was looking for a challenger to then-Democratic Sen. John Edwards. Rove also recruited Dole into the Senate race in 2002 to fill the seat of the retiring Sen. Jesse Helms.

N.C. Democrats

All of the Democrats have struggled to raise money this year. Cunningham has been able to tap into many traditional North Carolina Democratic contributors.

Among his donors are Frank Daniels Jr., former publisher of The News & Observer; Tom Lambeth, former executive with Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation; Harriett Martin, the wife of former Senate candidate D.G. Martin; former Chief Justice James G. Exum Jr. of Greensboro; Duke University professor Joel Fleishman; Richard Sullivan, former finance director for the Democratic National Committee; Dr. Charles Sanders, former Senate candidate and former Glaxo chairman; and Stephanie Fanjul, National Education Association policy director.

Clay Aiken, the Raleigh-bred singer, may be the best-known name on Cunningham's donor list.

If Cunningham has dominated the ol' boy network, Marshall has dominated the ol' girl network.

Among her donors were Elizabeth Bennett, director of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences; Laura Bingham, president of Peace College; Crandall Bowles, chairman of Spring Industries and wife of UNC President Erskine Bowles; Janice Faulkner, a former secretary of state; former Raleigh Councilwoman Anne Franklin; former U.S. Ambassador Jeanette Hyde; Raleigh businesswoman Darleen Johns; and former Cultural Resources Secretary Betty Ray McCain.

"Elaine has served this state well," Hyde said. "She is a leader. I admire her very much. I would like to see her in the Senate."

Marshall has received plenty of contributions from men as well. Among them are Charlotte businessman Cameron Harris; Walter DeVries, a former pollster who ran a political institute; Patrick Diamond, director of development for the Afro-American Cultural Center in Charlotte; and former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Willis Whichard.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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