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Christensen: Senate primary is quiet, but you can hear Ross stirring

Former state Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh lawyer, has been collecting key endorsements in the race to be North Carolina’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.
Former state Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh lawyer, has been collecting key endorsements in the race to be North Carolina’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. cliddy@newsobserver.com

North Carolina’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary candidates will share a stage for the first time Friday in a race that has attracted little public attention.

The four are scheduled to appear at a Raleigh forum sponsored by The N.C. Council of Minority Caucuses. It is the only joint appearance they have agreed to – although the campaigns are weighing invitations for televised debates next month from Time Warner Cable and WRAL-TV.

With less than two months to go before the primary March 15, the campaigns have been quietly building networks, raising money and putting together campaign organizations. Financially strapped, they have used social media for most of their messages. But the clock is ticking. Absentee voting by mail began Monday.

The most movement involves former state Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh lawyer, who has been collecting the key endorsements.

She is competing with Kevin Griffin, a Durham businessman; Ernest Reeves, a Greenville entrepreneur; and Spring Hope Mayor Chris Rey. The winner will face the Republican choice in the fall, with GOP Sen. Richard Burr running for re-election.

Ross has been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the national arm of the party tasked with wresting control of the Senate from Republicans; EMILY’s List, a political committee that backs pro-choice women; and the political arm of the AFL-CIO.

The DSCC initially tried to persuade Democratic former Sen. Kay Hagan to enter the race, and when she declined, they made a run at U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor.

The DSCC endorsement in a primary is seen as a reflection of Ross’ ability to put together a campaign and raise enough money to run it.

Although candidates are not required to release fund-raising reports until Friday, the Ross campaign on Tuesday disclosed that it had raised $585,692 in the last quarter of 2015 —the first quarter since she entered the campaign.

And that is a healthy amount. During a comparable period, Hagan raised $561,000 while a member of the Senate budget committee. It was far more than two Burr challengers in 2010 raised during a comparable period — $320,000 for former state Sen. Cal Cunningham and $126,000 for Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.

The Ross campaign said that 85 percent of the donations came from North Carolina.

The endorsements also provide a signal to other Democrats.

“That sends more a signal to donors than to the average voter,” Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, said of the DSCC endorsement. “They are all going to need money. When you start lining up constituency groups, that is basically a stamp of approval for check writers. Those early endorsements start to cleave the candidates into different tiers, and certainly Ross has the advantage there.”

Other factors are at play in the race:

▪ Black voters. Democratic turnout in recent primaries has been 31 percent to 37 percent African-American. Two of the candidates, Rey and Reeves, are black, and of the two, Rey has put together a solid campaign, while Reeves is making his third run for political office in recent years.

It is critical for them to get their message out and to convince voters they’re viable. There is some unhappiness in the black community that there may not be a black person in one of the top places on the Democratic ticket if Hillary Clinton is the presidential nominee and Attorney General Roy Cooper is the nominee for governor. But Ross has strong ties in the black community, having represented a state House district in Raleigh with a significant African-American population.

▪ How might the presidential primaries affect the governor’s race? Democratic primary turnouts have ranged from 1.3 million in 2008 during the Obama-Clinton showdown to 500,000 in 2010. If the Democratic presidential primary race between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders is still competitive, it could overshadow the Senate race, making it hard for the Senate candidates to get their message out. A strong turnout of women for Clinton could help Ross, or a big turnout in the black community could help Rey or Reeves.

▪ Can any candidate get 40 percent and avoid a runoff?

▪ None of the candidates is well known, with a poll taken last month showing that about three-fourths of voters have never heard of them.

Recent polls have suggested that Ross has a small lead. She drew 19 percent support, Griffin 14 percent, Rey 10 percent and Reeves 3 percent in a survey by Public Policy Polling. A Civitas poll found Ross with 13 percent, Griffin with 6 percent and Ray with 3 percent.

All have a long way to go to introduce themselves to voters, and that will take money, whether on TV or radio ads, direct mail or even on social media.

“I would think that their No. 1 goal is to have a strong showing on TV – or at least some showing,’’ said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, rchristensen@newsobserver.com, @oldpolhack

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