Democrats Waiting for Decision From Etheridge in N.C. Senate Race

Posted October 21, 2009 at 6:37pm

As multiple highly touted Democratic recruits passed on challenging Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) earlier this year, an oft-repeated line by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials was that there’s no need to rush the recruiting process.

Burr isn’t getting any less vulnerable, those insiders argued, and besides, now-Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) didn’t formally launch her Senate bid last cycle until relatively late in the recruiting season.

For the record, Hagan’s announcement came on Oct. 30, 2007, which means DSCC officials may have to find a new “late in the recruiting season— comparison if they don’t come up with a candidate by next weekend.

Three Democratic candidates have already filed to take on Burr, but it’s no secret that the DSCC is holding out to see what Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) decides to do.

“He is still considering a run for the Senate,— spokesman Don Owens said Wednesday. “It is of interest of to him. At this point he still expects to make a decision between now and the third week of November.—

Earlier this cycle, Etheridge decided to pass on the Senate race, but Owens acknowledged Wednesday that the DSCC’s continued efforts to recruit the Congressman made him take a second look.

The DSCC’s “interest in Rep. Etheridge as a candidate certainly was a key factor in causing the Congressman to reconsider the race. … He went back and talked to his family about it. He went back and talked to many of his supporters about it.—

But Owens said that with the focus over the past three months on health care reform, the Congressman just hasn’t had the time to talk to everyone that he would like to about a Senate bid.

“That’s his primary concern, the economy and health care. And when he’s not doing that he’s taking time … to consider his options,— Owens said.

But if the DSCC is as committed to knocking off Burr as it was to knocking off former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), they could be presenting the Congressman with a very convincing argument.

“I think [Etheridge] is probably looking at this race much more differently than he would have looked at this race a year ago,— one North Carolina Democratic insider said Wednesday. The DSCC “dumped a ton of money into [Hagan’s] race. … I think he’s probably looking at this race through the prism of what they did for Kay last year, and they made a huge difference.—

Still, Etheridge is one recruit who can probably take some more time before making a decision.

Although he raised a less-than-exciting $154,000 in the third quarter, the Congressman reported just over $1 million in the bank as of Sept. 30. If he joins the Senate race, he certainly should be able to ramp up his fundraising.

The other Democratic candidates who have filed to run against Burr are viewed as having less of a fundraising upside.

Attorney Kenneth Lewis (D), who filed in June, raised $158,000 from July through September and had $184,000 in cash on hand.

In less than a month of fundraising, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) reported $178,000 in receipts, but she also loaned herself about $72,000 of that. Marshall — who ran in the 2002 open-seat race when then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R) retired but finished a disappointing third in the primary — ended the quarter with $164,000 in cash on hand.

As they continue to wait, Democrats don’t seem too concerned about letting Oct. 30 pass without filling their last Senate recruiting hole. Insiders point out that the National Republican Senatorial Committee still has recruiting holes of its own in states such as North Dakota. They also note that the GOP’s top choice passed on the race against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in Nevada, although the party appears to have settled on another choice.

If Etheridge eventually decides to pass on a campaign, Democrats in Washington, D.C., seem high on the prospects of Cal Cunningham (D), a lawyer and former state Senator who served in the Iraq War.

Cunningham, who is popular among progressives in the Tar Heel State, has been quietly putting together a campaign team.

“The North Carolinians that I’m talking to are eager for choice next year and we think we have a very good, compelling reason to match up and offer North Carolina new leadership,— Cunningham said Wednesday. “We expect that the field will develop in very short order.—

While Cunningham wouldn’t be the first choice of party officials, neither was Hagan before she got into the race and won.

Still, Cunningham would certainly need the national party’s help to quickly catch up in fundraising.

“I do believe there’s still plenty of time— to find a candidate, North Carolina Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson said. “You have plenty of time to mount a serious campaign and put a real energy and effort campaign together and get some money on television and come out of the primary with some momentum.—

Part of the reason the process has been a bit slow is because there were “a couple really top-tier candidates who everyone [gave] some room to make a decision.—

Those big names included Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) and Rep. Heath Shuler (D), who both considered and eventually passed on the contest.

“I think the field will be pretty set by December and potentially in November,— Jackson said.

One Democratic source said the new recruiting deadline marker might as well be February of next year — which would be the time frame that now-Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) launched his successful bid against then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004 — because Burr isn’t getting any less vulnerable.

Indeed, publicly released surveys have shown that Burr and Reid continue to battle some of the worst polling numbers of Senators up for re-election in 2010.

Meanwhile, the DSCC continues to work to soften up Burr for whoever takes him on next year. The committee circulated a release this week calling the Senator a hypocrite for touting a project in his state that was funded by stimulus money after voting against the stimulus package.

“Despite a political environment very conducive to Republicans, Richard Burr did nothing to help himself over the past few months. He still has one of the lowest re-elect numbers among any Republican in the Senate,— DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz said.

Paul Shumaker, the lead consultant for Burr’s re-election campaign, said there’s an obvious reason no top-tier Democrat has filed yet.

“I think it’s because the political insiders know how hard of a worker Richard Burr is, and I think poll numbers that we’ve seen don’t accurately reflect his standing,— Shumaker said.

Shumaker argues that a better measure of Burr’s strength in the state can be found in his fundraising. The Senator raised about $1.2 million in the third quarter and had about $3.5 million in the bank as of Sept. 30.

Or his strength can be measured in the assessments of his past opponents.

Democrat Erskine Bowles, whom Burr defeated in 2004, heaped praise on the Senator earlier this week at a conference where the two appeared together.

“I’ve had a chance to work with this guy for four full years and nobody works harder or smarter for North Carolina than Richard Burr does,— Bowles said.