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Thomas Mills: Lessons learned from Cunningham’s loss

By Thomas Mills

Cal Cunningham very likely cost Democrats control of the U.S. Senate. He was running against an unpopular incumbent and led by a significant margin for most of the race. In poll after poll, he outperformed Joe Biden, but when the votes were tallied, the president-elect outperformed him. The affair was the turning point.

Had Cunningham’s affair happened before he was a candidate for U.S. Senate, he might be forgiven. Marriages have problems, and infidelity is not uncommon. However, Cunningham intentionally set up a rendezvous months after he became the Democratic nominee and in the midst of a general election campaign in one of the most important races in the country. That indicates more than just poor judgment. It shows an arrogance and narcissism that’s probably indicative of some sort of personality disorder.

Cunningham is a substance-free politician. In the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate against Elaine Marshall in 2010, I called him a “walking talking point.” I stand by that characterization. He didn’t bring any significant accomplishments to the race other than one term in the N.C. Senate almost 20 years ago. His thin resumé made his time in the Army Reserves the centerpiece of his campaign, something that impressed Chuck Schumer more than the people of North Carolina.

Schumer and Washington politicians always think military credentials play well in North Carolina. The evidence doesn’t bear that out. If my recollection is right, the last veteran to win statewide office in North Carolina was Terry Sanford more than 30 years ago. Cunningham joins a long list of unsuccessful candidates who ran on their military background.

In a state full of veterans and active duty service members, military experience is a great qualifier, but it’s not enough to be the basis of a campaign. In North Carolina, we have great respect for people who serve, but we also know that military experience does not necessarily make for better judgement, superior intelligence or political savvy. What makes our veterans and military special is that they are just regular people, not necessarily exceptional ones, willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the good of the country.

Cunningham brought nothing extraordinary to the campaign and plenty of warning signs of his narcissism. While he’s always kept himself visible in Democratic fundraising circles, he rarely offered any help to other Democratic candidates. Instead, his interest was self-promotion. He was in a video highlighting veterans for Barack Obama, but he was never doing any lifting for local candidates who needed a hand.

To be fair, Cunningham was never the first choice of the political establishment. They wanted Josh Stein, Anthony Foxx or a woman to run for the seat. They dismissed Erica Smith-Ingram because of her weak fundraising and some personal baggage. Several other people auditioned for the spot, but Schumer and company settled on Cunningham because of his fundraising prowess. At the time, he was a candidate for lieutenant governor who had raised a lot of cash. That was his chief selling point.

Candidates who want to run for office should not wait for the blessing of the political establishment. In the current environment, that support can be as much of a liability as a blessing. If this cycle showed us anything, it’s that Democrats can now raise money directly from small donors and bypass the traditional fundraising networks. They may need establishment support in a competitive general election, but savvy candidates can certainly beat the establishment in Democratic primaries. Just ask Elaine Marshall.

We can learn from the Cal Cunningham’s debacle. He’s a guy who has always wanted to be something more than he’s wanted to do something. In the future, Democrats should look for substance and accomplishments in their candidates. While military service is a great qualifier, it’s not the basis for a campaign unless the candidate’s military career shows exceptional leadership. North Carolinians have a better sense of the state than the Washington establishment. People who want to run for office should just do it instead of waiting for the blessings of would-be king or queen makers.

With the right campaign and right profile, the resources will be there. Most of all, when you see a lawyer with a thin resume and boyish good looks who spouts talking points instead of speaking from the heart, run the other way.

Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant

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