Second-chancers run for N.C. Senate

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 14, 2009

RALEIGH (AP) ó Next year’s U.S. Senate Democratic primary to decide who’ll challenge Republican Richard Burr in the fall is shaping up as a choice between candidates with second chances.
Former state Sen. Cal Cunningham of Lexington said in November he wouldn’t run, but took a second look and joined the race 31/2 weeks later after other high-profile Democrats passed on it.
“I see the path to victory that just wasn’t there a month ago,” Cunningham said.
Four-term Secretary of State Elaine Marshall finished third in the 2002 Senate primary but believes she’s poised to win this time around.
“I always learn from my mistakes and try not to repeat them,” Marshall said. “I like challenges. I’m not afraid.”
And while Chapel Hill attorney Kenneth Lewis is distancing himself from such labels, a victory would make him the party’s second-ever black nominee for the Senate after former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. Lewis worked on Gantt’s failed bid to beat conservative icon Jesse Helms.
“Issues of skin color are declining in significance when I talk to voters around North Carolina about the need to improve the economy” or health care, Lewis said. “Those aren’t issues that only apply to one race or another.”
Lewis, Marshall and Cunningham are the leading candidates expected to challenge Burr, who wants a second six-year term. Issues, campaign fundraising and candidate story lines will help decide the May 4 primary survivor.
There’s Cunningham, the Army reservist who served in Iraq. Marshall is the problem-solver who beat NASCAR king Richard Petty to become secretary of state. And Lewis is the great-grandson of slaves who went to Harvard Law School and returned to North Carolina.
“It’s going to be interesting to watch this primary play out,” Elon University Poll director Hunter Bacot said. “In order to get your name out there and be noticed, you’re going to have to advertise yourself, so that’s where you’re going to see separation.”
Democrats hope the party’s golden touch during the past two election cycles will carry on.
Kay Hagan upset GOP incumbent Elizabeth Dole two years ago, the same time Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win North Carolina’s electoral votes since 1976. Democrats also beat GOP Reps. Charles Taylor in 2006 and Robin Hayes in 2008.
Burr’s campaign said next year is going to be different for the GOP, pointing to voter unease with Democratic policies that have busted the federal budget and proposed restrictions on carbon emissions that will lead to higher taxes.
“I don’t think that dog hunts in North Carolina any more,” Burr consultant Paul Shumaker said.
The three Democratic candidates have labeled Burr as part of the reason why America has failed so far to get a health care overhaul approved, and they say his voting record backed policies of President George W. Bush that got the country into a deep recession.
“Richard Burr has voted in ways that are out of touch with the basic values and needs of North Carolina,” said Lewis, 48, who was Obama’s finance director in North Carolina.
The Democratic primary’s biggest flap to date may be over Cunningham’s decision last week to run after all, causing Marshall and Lewis to jump on what their campaigns saw as a flip-flop.
“Twenty-six days ago you couldn’t show Democrats how to beat Richard Burr,” Lewis said in a news release. “Twenty-six days ago you couldn’t tell voters what you would do when you got to Washington.”
Cunningham, 36, announced Nov. 10 he wouldn’t run because he said he “concluded that this is the wrong race at the wrong time for me and my family.” But after U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge and former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker decided not to get in the race, Cunningham started reconsidering, in part at the urging of Democrats in D.C. and North Carolina.
Burr is one of two Republican incumbents the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee says it’s targeting for defeat next year. Committee spokesman Eric Schultz said Friday the panel hasn’t taken sides in the primary.
The discussion comes as the 65-year-old Marshall said she’ll stay in the race even though her husband of eight years died from cancer complications Nov. 28.
A change of mind didn’t bother voters two years ago, when Hagan decided to run for Dole’s seat three weeks after announcing she wouldn’t.
Bill Sabo, political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, said he doesn’t know what voters will think about Cunningham. But no one should assume what happened politically in the last election will happen now.
“The context is so much different than it was two years ago,” Sabo said.
On the Net:
Elaine Marshall for U.S. Senate:
Cunningham for U.S. Senate:
Kenneth Lewis for U.S. Senate:
Richard Burr for U.S. Senate: