National Democrats make their pick in North Carolina’s Senate primary

National Democrats, eager to flip North Carolina in their attempt to regain control of the U.S. Senate, have endorsed Cal Cunningham in the Democratic primary in the state.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee picked Cunningham, an Army veteran and former one-term state senator, who has easily topped the three-person Democratic field in fundraising and endorsements since entering the race in June.

The committee is the official fundraising arm for Senate Democrats. So the endorsement Thursday should open the door to increased fundraising capability in what promises to be an expensive general election race.

State Sen. Erica Smith and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller also are vying for the nomination to run for the seat held by Republican Thom Tillis, who faces his own primary.

Cunningham raised $1.7 million, which includes a $200,000 loan to his campaign, through the end of September, according to federal election filings. Smith, who entered the race in February, reported raising $133,800 through September. Fuller reported raising $31,597.

More than 140 state leaders, many elected or formerly elected, have endorsed Cunningham’s campaign, including the late Sen. Kay Hagan, who Tillis defeated in 2014 in what was, at that time, the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history.

“Cal Cunningham has an impressive record of service to North Carolina and our country as a military prosecutor, a business leader and a public servant, and he will continue to serve with distinction in the U.S. Senate,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, chairwoman of the DSCC.

“Whether it’s bringing down the cost of health care and prescription drugs or creating economic opportunity for all North Carolina families, Cal is deeply committed to fighting for his state and taking on the political corruption in Washington that is blocking progress on so many critical issues. Cal has demonstrated he has what it takes to flip this seat, and we look forward to supporting his campaign to give North Carolinians the representation they deserve in the Senate.”

Democrats currently hold 47 seats in the U.S. Senate, including two independents who caucus with them. Tillis is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican senators, and North Carolina is among the top states Democrats need to win the Senate.

The DSCC has endorsed candidates in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Iowa, Kansas, New Mexico, and South Carolina in 2020. The committee endorsed Jaime Harrison in South Carolina.

“This campaign has always been about listening to North Carolinians, and building a movement across North Carolina to bring better leadership to Washington and a better future to our state,” Cunningham said in a statement about the endorsement. “I’m incredibly proud of the coalition we’re building across North Carolina, county by county, as we travel the state, and I’m grateful that folks across the country are recognizing that momentum as well.”

Cunningham’s campaign announced on Thursday that it had received contributions from all 100 counties in North Carolina. The campaign said more than 4,000 North Carolinians had donated to the campaign.

Three national election trackers have moved the race toward the Democrats in recent months with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and Inside Elections rating the race a toss-up.

A recent poll conducted by left-leaning Public Policy Polling for the group End Citizens United showed Cunningham with a small lead over Tillis. End Citizens United has endorsed Cunningham, and the CEO of Public Policy Polling is a Cunningham supporter and donor.

Republicans have been attacking Cunningham as the “handpicked candidate” of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, since he entered the race. Cunningham previously had announced a bid for lieutenant governor.

Cunningham ran for the Democratic nomination for Senate in 2010, but lost to Elaine Marshall. During that primary bid, the DSCC also backed him, according to reports at the time, including from Politico.

Cunningham received donations from more than 50 previous Schumer donors from New York in the second quarter. Incumbent Democratic Senators donated $124,500 to Cunningham’s campaign via their leadership committees before Thursday’s official endorsement.

“Even Erica Smith has made clear that the DSCC has been propping up Cal Cunningham for months, so today’s news is no surprise. The handful of times Senator Schumer has given him permission to leave his windowless basement and campaign, Cal Cunningham has proven to be a rubber stamp for the radical liberal agenda,” said Tillis’ campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo.

“His obsession with impeachment, support for sanctuary cities, inability to oppose a government takeover of our economy and taxpayer-funded health care for illegal immigrants are all reasons why Cal Cunningham is out of step with North Carolinians, and why Senator Tillis will be re-elected.”

Smith has pointed to her experience and an Emerson poll in early June that showed Smith with a seven-point lead over Tillis to argue she’s the better candidate.

Smith alluded to the DSCC in June when she said, “If they decide to consider Cal Cunningham, at the end of the day the next U.S. senator to represent North Carolina is not decided by five to six people in a back room. It’s decided by the people of North Carolina.”

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.