Good News Badly Timed for DSCC

Posted December 1, 2009 at 6:30pm

In what appears to be a case of right news, wrong timing for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, word began to leak out Tuesday that former North Carolina state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D) has decided to reverse an earlier decision and will challenge Sen. Richard Burr (R) in 2010.

The decision is a victory for the DSCC, which has been working to get Cunningham to reconsider the contest after he passed on the race in mid-November. The only problem is that the news leaked out on the same day that North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D), who is also competing in the 2010 Senate primary, was holding a funeral for her husband, who died last week at age 77.

“It’s pretty tasteless to leak or announce you’re running on the day that Secretary Marshall’s dealing with her husband’s funeral,— Marshall consultant Thomas Mills said. “But if he is running, this is all about D.C. money. He’s waited until he got the approval of D.C. power brokers — that’s not a very good indication of the type of Senator he would make.—

Cunningham released a statement Tuesday noting that he “was not making any announcements— about the race this week.

“This week, our thoughts and prayers are with Secretary Marshall and her family,— he said, perhaps leaving the door open for an announcement as early as next week.

A Cunningham candidacy fills the DSCC’s last major recruiting hole of the cycle. Earlier this year, the committee watched as one after another highly touted recruit — including North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and Reps. Bob Etheridge and Heath Shuler — eventually passed on challenging Burr.

Marshall joined the Senate contest in September but has never been embraced at the national level. Some officials in Marshall’s camp have expressed confusion as to why the four-time statewide elected official seems to have been passed over by the DSCC.

In the wake of Etheridge’s decision to skip the Senate race last month, Marshall’s camp mounted a renewed public relations campaign in state and national media to show her strength as a candidate. That included a campaign poll in the field last week that showed Marshall well ahead of Cunningham in a hypothetical primary.

Some insiders have speculated that one reason Marshall hasn’t become the choice of party insiders is her disappointing third-place finish in the Democratic primary when she ran for the open Senate seat in 2002. But perhaps national officials were simply more taken with Cunningham’s profile coming off the 2008 election of Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who was also a former state Senator.

Cunningham, a lawyer who also served in the Iraq War, is popular among progressives in the Tar Heel State. He had been quietly putting together a campaign organization with the help of the DSCC in recent months before he decided to pass on the race. About a week ago, word began to circulate in North Carolina Democratic circles that Cunningham was reconsidering his earlier decision.

But Cunningham has to prove himself on the fundraising front. Marshall had about $164,000 in the bank as of the Sept. 30 Federal Election Commission filing deadline. Burr reported more than $2.5 million in cash on hand.

Although the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a news release describing Cunningham as a “top tier— potential recruit in November after he initially passed on the race, committee spokesman Colin Reed implied Tuesday that Democrats have now “settled— on Cunningham.

“After suffering nearly a dozen recruiting setbacks, it appears the DSCC and party establishment in Washington have finally settled on Cal Cunningham at this late date in the process,— Reed said. “As he enters the race a mere five months before the Democrat primary, the relatively-unknown Cunningham faces two opponents who have been working for months to shore up the support of key Democrat voting blocs, including one, Elaine Marshall, who has already been elected statewide four times and led Cunningham by nearly 40 points in recent polling.—

DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz declined to discuss a Cunningham candidacy on Tuesday but did take the chance to take a shot at Burr.

“Richard Burr is one of the most vulnerable members of the Republican caucus this cycle,— Schultz said. “His record of blocking much-needed health insurance reform is only the latest example of him standing up for special interests instead of North Carolinians — and it’s why he’s going to have a real race next November.—