NC-SEN Dem Runoff Pits Big Local Name Against National Dems And Young Activists

Now that Democratic primary for Senate in North Carolina is headed to a runoff, and political operatives in the state are expecting a close fight for support — that is, among those voters who will actually show up for a second primary. And voters will have their choice between a well-know candidate with a long history in the state, and the alternative candidate who has the unofficial support of the national Dems and the sort of profile that appeals to younger activists.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall won 36% of the vote, followed by former state Senator and Iraq War veteran Cal Cunningham with 27%. North Carolina primaries have runoff elections if no candidate attains a 40% threshold, so this race will continue for another month and a half until the June 22 runoff, at which time Dems will then have a nominee to face GOP Sen. Richard Burr.

A Democratic source in North Carolina told TPMDC that Dems are expecting the race to be close all the way to June, and would be a contrast between Marshall, who was first elected statewide in 1996 and has cultivated a loyal following with the state’s Democratic voters, with Cunningham’s younger activist base who are looking for something relatively new.A pre-primary survey from Public Policy Polling (D) gave Marshall the early lead in a potential runoff, with a lead of 43%-32% over Cunningham — a similar-sized lead as she enjoyed in the initial primary itself. Over the next few weeks, the candidates will have to mobilize their supporters all over again, and pick up support among the lesser candidates’ voters, in what will be a low-turnout race.

“The turnout numbers will be very low,” said the source. “And so it will be matter of which one of the two will be able to reach out and get a small group of people to the polls.”

Marshall was first elected back in 1996, defeating Republican NASCAR legend Richard “The King” Petty in an upset, and was the first woman to be elected statewide in North Carolina. “She’s got that great bio behind her, continuing to serve as secretary of state and being the first one to break that glass ceiling,” the source said. “That base of Democratic women has continued to cheer for her, and been good supporters throughout the years.”

“She has done that rubber-chicken circuit a thousand times,” the source added. “She has been to the county conventions.”

Cunningham, who was a favorite of national Democrats for this race, started out with much less name recognition. He served briefly in the state Senate from 2001-2003, and in 2008 was a military prosecutor in Iraq, tackling contractor corruption cases — a point that could potentially play well in a state with a large population of active and retired military personnel. “He’s been able to really engender a strong, kind of young vibrant field operation,” the source said. “Folks that were first energized by the Obama campaign, a lot of them have kind of jumped and moved over.”