Secretary of State Elaine Marshall easily captured the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate Tuesday, tapping into voter discontent with Washington by promising to be a voice for average North Carolinians.
Marshall, 64, who will face Republican Sen. Richard Burr in November, overcame considerable obstacles to win her party's nomination, including being ignored by her national party, having a money disadvantage and mourning the death of her husband during the campaign.
In a runoff with a very light turnout, Marshall had 60 percent of the vote, and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham had 40 percent, according to unofficial returns.
Marshall entered a crowded banquet hall of a downtown Raleigh hotel shortly after 9 p.m. as supporters chanted "Go, Elaine, go!"
After thanking her backers, she lit into Burr.
"Washington has a lot of problems and one of our biggest problems is our Senator Richard Burr," Marshall told more than 120 supporters at the Holiday Inn Brownstone.
"He stood with insurance companies against patients and families," Marshall said. "He stood with Wall Street against financial reform. And now he is standing with big oil against the people of the Gulf Coast. The choice in this election is clear."
A few minutes earlier, at the Lexington Civic Center, Cunningham conceded and promised to campaign across the state for Marshall.
"Any differences she and I might have shared in this campaign pale next to the differences we have with Richard Burr," Cunningham said. "For 16 years he has taken care of those who do not need taken care of."
Burr congratulated Marshall.
"The Democrats' primary has shown that North Carolina voters will have a clear choice in November between two vastly different directions for our country," Burr said. "I am proud of my record of less spending and smaller federal government, and I trust the voters of North Carolina to pick a senator that reflects their vision for our state and nation."
The loss was a blow to the national Democratic establishment, which had recruited Cunningham, viewing the more centrist, young Iraq War veteran as a stronger potential opponent for Burr.
Marshall alluded to her outsider status in her victory speech.
"The odds were stacked against us but we did not back down," Marshall said. "The Washington establishment made it clear that we would have to win this without their help. But fortunately we had you."
In an interview after the speech, Marshall said she had talked with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and they wanted to meet with her.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the senatorial committee chairman, pushed Marshall.
"She is a proven reformer who has taken on special interests in her state, and has cracked down on lobbyist activity, insurance company abuses, and excess on Wall Street," Menendez said.
"Tomorrow, we begin the general election, and the choice for North Carolinians could not be any starker," Menendez said.
There was an emotional moment for Marshall, as she recalled the death of her husband Bill Holford late last year, and their joint decision to continue with the campaign despite his illness. She wished, Marshall said with her voice cracking, that he could have been there to share the victory.
Marshall's win was a triumph of old-fashioned grassroots politics, won during hundreds of chicken dinners and lunches during her career. First she was a self-described "country lawyer" for women's causes, then a legislator and then a four-term secretary of state.
She had a particularly strong following among women 50 and older, who had no difficulty seeing her as both a determined feminist pushing insurance companies to include coverage for mammograms and a folksy farm girl with a talent for making her own dresses.
Katy Haynes, 73, of Raleigh, first met Marshall at a Democratic dinner in Asheville in the mid-1980s. Years later, Haynes' daughter went to work for Marshall in the secretary of state's office.
Marshall "is no pushover," Haynes said, but she knows "you just can't walk over people to get what you want. She's willing to listen and come to terms about things."
Polls also suggest Marshall ran strongly among African-American voters. Her campaign received a boost in the runoff, when third-place primary finisher, Ken Lewis, a Chapel Hill lawyer, endorsed her.
The main threat to her winning the nomination occurred when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the arm of the national party charged with keeping the Senate in Democratic hands, repeatedly bypassed Marshall. The committee apparently viewed her as a weak challenger to Burr because of her difficulty in raising money and because of her lackluster performance as third-place finisher in the 2002 U.S. Senate Democratic primary.
After trying to recruit several well-known Tar Heel Democrats, the national Democrats settled on Cunningham, attracted to his profile as an Iraq war veteran with a degree from the London School of Economics. Despite one term in the legislature, he was a relative newcomer to politics.
Marshall won a 36-27 lead in the May 4 primary, but short of the 40 percent needed to clinch the nomination. She had urged Cunningham to forgo the runoff; her campaign said Cunningham had "no path to victory." The runoff, with its low turnout, played to Marshall's strength among party activists.
Shortly after the polls closed Tuesday, the national political forces were lining up for and against Marshall.
Tim Kaine, the Democratic National Committee chairman, congratulated Marshall and Cunningham for running an "aggressive campaign."
"With the primary behind them," Kaine said, "North Carolinians now have a clear choice before them: elect Elaine Marshall, a proven leader who will work to create jobs for North Carolina families, or Richard Burr, a typical politician who will put the interests of his party before North Carolinians."
But Republicans quickly signaled that Marshall's views would be a campaign issue.
Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, said the Democratic primary has "left the Democrat Party largely fractured."
"Marshall's support for the far-left, liberal policies championed by the Obama-Reid-Pelosi triumvirate puts her largely out of touch with the majority of voters in the state," Steele said.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Marshall "enthusiastically endorsed the Democrats' massive health spending bill, failed stimulus debacle, and job-killing card check legislation."
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.
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