Marshall, Cunningham Likely Headed to Runoff

Low Turnout Expected in North Carolina on Tuesday

Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:27pm

The two leading Democratic candidates in the North Carolina Senate race are entering the final weekend before the primary with more of a whimper than a roar, while party operatives are coming to terms with the prospect that a resource-draining runoff appears likely.

For several months, the primary has been notable for its lean fundraising by all the candidates. That fact has led to a television air war that has been especially late in getting started and that, in turn, is likely to drive turnout in the Tuesday election even lower than already expected.

Evidence of the lack of turnout can be seen in the low early vote number, which was hovering around 50,000 on Wednesday.

Some insiders expect a light turnout to favor the more established party figure in the race, four-term state Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. But former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, who was recruited into the contest by national party officials late last year, has been steadily gaining on Marshall in recent weeks and has moved into a statistical tie in recent polls.

Four other Democrats will be on the ballot Tuesday, but of that group only attorney Ken Lewis has polled in double digits.

The questions now are whether Cunningham will surge over the top on primary day and whether either candidate can break the 40 percent threshold, which would keep the election from going to a runoff in late June. The winner will face Sen. Richard Burr (R) in November.

Cunningham, who has been on the air in the central and eastern parts of the state for two weeks, expanded his television buys into the Charlotte and Asheville media markets this week, and his campaign was confident Wednesday that he would continue to have the momentum through Tuesday.

“We feel very good about where Cal is on the polls. He’s showing clear momentum as we end the final week of the campaign,” Cunningham adviser Morgan Jackson said.

But in the final few days, Cunningham, who outraised Marshall by more than $200,000 in the primary despite entering the race at the end of last year, will no longer benefit from going unchallenged on statewide television.

Marshall’s statewide television campaign is scheduled to finally get off the ground today.

“Marshall will pull this out and will cross the 40 percent threshold,” Marshall consultant Thomas Mills said. “By both looking at polls and early vote numbers, nobody has tuned into this election early. We’re tuning in [with television ads] when the voters are tuning in. … We believe our timing is right.”

Marshall may also get a boost in the final days of the primary from Lewis’ move this week to attack Cunningham in radio ads. Lewis, who earned some notable endorsements in the black community but whose campaign never caught fire statewide, may be targeting Cunningham because he believes the former state Senator is the more vulnerable of the two top Democrats and that going after him presents the best chance for Lewis to make the runoff.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee appeared to acknowledge Wednesday that Cunningham — whom the committee worked to recruit late last year after several higher-profile prospects passed on the contest — may not make it out of the primary.

“We believe Richard Burr is very vulnerable and that this will be a competitive race no matter who comes out of the primary,” DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz said.

Some North Carolina Democrats said Wednesday that the best way to accomplish the ultimate goal of beating Burr would be for the Democratic primary to be decided Tuesday.

Despite a national environment that decidedly favors Republicans, Burr’s approval ratings continue to be mired in the low to mid-30s.

But one number that worries Democrats when they look at Burr is his nearly $5 million war chest.

“Lord knows we’re going to have a hard enough time competing financially with Richard Burr this fall as things stand financially now. I think we’re going to have an even harder time if we spend another month competing with each other and draining resources,” said former Tar Heel State Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Meek, who isn’t publicly supporting any candidate in the primary.

“A runoff puts the whole thing in jeopardy for beating Burr,” one North Carolina Democratic operative agreed. “He’s not going to stop” raising money while waiting to see whom the Democratic nominee will be.

That operative said that even if one candidate didn’t break 40 percent next week, it might serve the party interests better if the second-place candidate opted not to ask for a runoff. But Democrats probably shouldn’t hold their breath for that.