- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2020

North Carolina Democrats are heading to the polls Tuesday to pick a nominee who will square off against first-term Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in what has already become one of the most expensive and closely watched Senate races in the country.

A super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell bragged that its meddling in the Democratic primary has elevated state Sen. Erica Smith, who is battling front-runner Cal Cunningham and several other contenders for the right to take on Mr. Tillis in November.

The group’s moves led to cries of foul play from Democrats, even as outside groups flooded the state with millions of dollars’ worth of support to help push Mr. Cunningham across the finish line.

“They should stay out of it,” said John Verdejo, a Democratic National Committee member. “Whoever wins our primary will be the one to go after Tillis, but for someone to come in and just influence a race — it’s frankly wrong and disgusting.”

North Carolina is critical for Democratic hopes of regaining control of the Senate. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority but are defending seats in several competitive states including Arizona, Colorado, and Iowa.

Democrats are hoping to take Mr. Tillis‘ seat in the fall and are even talking about flipping North Carolina back to blue in the presidential contest, though Republicans say they would do well to pump the brakes on that kind of talk.

GOP strategist Paul Shumaker said state Democrats have seen a “severe registration erosion” over the last eight years and that about 10% of North Carolina Democrats are behavioral Republicans anyway, making it difficult for a far-left candidate to gain traction.

Mr. Cunningham “has tried not to embrace a lot of positions that the Democratic presidential candidates have been promoting and embracing, but now he is actually doing so,” Mr. Shumaker said. “He knows that narrative runs counter to the narrative with these suburban-based swing voters.”

If Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont ends up leading the Democrats’ presidential ticket, the party would be forced back into the 1980s or 1990s strategy-wise, Mr. Shumaker said.

“That is where you had a Democratic Party trying to run campaigns at the state level and divorce themselves of their national tickets,” he said. “In 2008, Barack Obama nationalized the Democratic Party in North Carolina and the Democrats paid a dear price for that in the post-2008 aftermath.”

Republicans are only too eager to help drive a wedge between the Democrats’ far-left and more traditional voters.

A group called Faith and Power PAC put millions of dollars into an ad campaign touting Ms. Smith’s progressive bona fides and saying that, unlike Mr. Cunningham, she can be counted on to support a Green New Deal to tackle climate change and “Medicare for All” government-run health care.

“On March 3rd, vote Democrat Erica Smith for U.S. Senate — the only proven progressive,” a narrator says in one of the ads.

Though outside groups typically shy away from claiming credit for cross-party advocacy, the Senate Leadership Fund — the leading super PAC supporting incumbent GOP senators — bragged that it had been bankrolling Faith and Power PAC.

Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law said they “stole a page out of Chuck Schumer’s playbook,” pointing to past examples of Democratic meddling in Republican Senate primaries in states such as Missouri and Nevada.

“Democrats are burning cash in a $13 million rescue mission for Cal Cunningham, who has proven to be a lackluster candidate with less money in the bank today than the beginning of the year,” Mr. Law said.

Mr. Cunningham, an Army veteran and former state senator who has the backing of the Senate Democrats’ official campaign arm, said in response that Mr. McConnell and Mr. Tillis are running scared. He released an ad denouncing the effort.

“McConnell and Thom Tillis have already done too much damage to our state,” Mr. Cunningham said. “I approve this message because, in North Carolina, the truth still matters.”

Mr. Cunningham, who lost a Democratic Senate primary in North Carolina 2010, won support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in October as the DSCC looked to clear the field for him early to challenge Mr. Tillis.

He has received outside support from other groups as well, including at least $4.5 million from a super PAC called Carolina Blue and more than $2.5 million from the group VoteVets.org, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Ms. Smith, whose campaign also denounced the efforts of Faith and Power PAC, is trying to muster some momentum ahead of Tuesday’s vote amid some public polling on the race that has shown Mr. Cunningham with the edge.

He had 45% support from likely primary voters in a recent survey from Public Policy Polling, compared to 18% for Ms. Smith, 4% for Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller, 2% for Steve Swenson, and 1% for physician Atul Goel.

A candidate has to win more than 30% of the vote Tuesday or the second-place finisher can request a runoff.

As of Feb. 12, Mr. Cunningham had $1.5 million on hand, compared to about $128,000 for Ms. Smith.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tillis had $5.4 million in the bank after raising close to $10 million for his first reelection bid.

He is facing businessman Larry Holmquist, businesswoman Sharon Hudson and former Superior Court Judge Paul Wright on Tuesday, but Mr. Tillis appears to be on his way to an easy win in the Republican primary.

Mr. Tillis dodged a bullet when would-be primary challenger Garland Tucker, who spent more than $1 million of his own money on his campaign last year, dropped his bid in December after he had prodded the Tillis campaign to run more than $2 million in ads in response.

Rep. Mark Walker, a prominent conservative voice in the House, said in December that he would not mount a primary challenge to Mr. Tillis.

Mr. Tillis won President Trump’s endorsement in June. The president tweeted the incumbent was “tough on Crime, Strong on the Border and fights hard against Illegal Immigration.”

Mr. Tillis wrote an op-ed in February 2019 explaining his opposition to Mr. Trump’s declaration of an emergency on the southern border to win more money for his U.S.-Mexico border wall. But Mr. Tillis flipped and sided with Mr. Trump in a Senate vote just weeks later.

“It goes to show you — he’ll do anything to keep Trump’s backing,” said Elaine Wood, a Democratic Party leader in Beaufort County in eastern North Carolina. “Who knows what his sincere convictions are one way or another?”

Mr. Tillis said when he changed his tune that he had spoken with Vice President Mike Pence and administration officials and that he looked forward to working on changes to the National Emergencies Act.

He has tried to tie Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Smith to Mr. Sanders, who is leading the Democratic presidential race and is jockeying with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden for front-runner status in North Carolina ahead of Super Tuesday.

“If Erica Smith believes people in North Carolina, and if Cal Cunningham believes people in North Carolina want Bernie Sanders and his liberal, progressive policies in place, then they … will be soundly rejected in North Carolina,” Mr. Tillis said recently.

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