Here’s my first takeaway on North Carolina’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate: There are few issues that separate the candidates, but there are broad differences in backgrounds and pitches.
The four Democratic candidates gathered for the first time last weekend at a forum in Raleigh. The winner of the primary March 15 will face the victor in the Republican primary, where Richard Burr is running for re-election.
Former state Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh lawyer, is the closest thing to an establishment candidate in the Democratic primary. She has collected the key endorsements – from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; from EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice women; and from the state AFL-CIO’s political committee. She also appears to have a big fundraising edge, and therefore will be best able to get her message to voters.
She became the anointed candidate after former Sen. Kay Hagan, who was defeated by Republican Thom Tillis in 2014, passed on the race, and the Democrats couldn’t persuade U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to run.
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At the forum at Democratic headquarters, Ross mentioned her career as a lawyer and a state legislator as one spent fighting for the people – whether for same-day voter registration or for improving public schools.
“I will fight,’’ Ross said. “Washington has not taken care of you the way that it should.”
She also seemed to be looking past the primary to more moderate general election voters, noting that her father was a military physician and saying she would be very supportive of efforts to fight terrorism.
Chris Rey is making the argument – without explicitly saying so – that the Democrats need an African-American candidate in a prime spot on the ticket in the first election of the post-Obama era. Rey is campaigning as the corruption-busting, three-term reform mayor of Spring Lake, who is also a veteran of military service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He argued that having a black Senate candidate would help Democrats up and down the ticket.
“You have an opportunity to bring a different kind of energy,” Rey said. “That energy doesn’t have to be in the end or even in the middle of the ticket. It needs to be at the top of the ticket. If you give me the opportunity to represent North Carolina at the top of the ticket we will not only send (Gov.) Pat McCrory home and send (Lt. Gov.) Dan Forest home, but we will put four or five more folks in the General Assembly. You see, politics isn’t just about policy-making. It’s about energy. It’s about having the energy to move people, and Chris Rey knows how to move people.”
Rey is one of two African-Americans in the race. Ernest Reeves, a retired Army captain from Greenville and self-described entrepreneur and counselor, said his military training provided a good background for dealing with national security issues.
Meanwhile, Kevin Griffin is trying to capitalize on the national mood against political insiders. Griffin, a Durham owner of a small business, has never run for political office and is clearly targeting Ross.
“This is a choice where you can pick the same old politicians to do the same old things – promise, promise and not deliver,” Griffin said. “Pick somebody who has gone out into the state and spent his whole campaign meeting with people and talking one-on-one; not holding up in a house somewhere dialing for dollars so I can outspend a candidate.”
Then he turned up the populism.
“You have to decide who you want to represent you,” Griffin said. “Is it a small-business owner who brings new energy and a new approach? Or is a politician, a 1 percenter who has to decide for their vacation whether to go to the mountain house or their beach house?”
None of the candidates is well-known across the state. Nor has any emerged yet as a polished candidate for the Senate.