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Democrats are growing alarmed about Republican attempts to prop up an insurgent liberal candidate in North Carolina — fearful that GOP meddling will undercut the party’s prospects in a key Senate contest.
What seems like a generic campaign ad pitching Erica Smith, a North Carolina state senator, as “the only proven progressive” in the state’s high-profile Senate race is actually part of a multimillion dollar investment from a mysterious super PAC — the innocuously named Faith and Power PAC — with apparent ties to Republicans.
The ad campaign, which began last week ahead of the March 3 primary, immediately disrupted the bid from frontrunner and Democratic leadership favorite Cal Cunningham to emerge from his primary and face incumbent GOP Sen. Thom Tillis in November.
The North Carolina race is critical: Without beating Tillis, Democrats' path back to the Senate majority is nearly impossible. Cunningham, a military veteran and former state lawmaker, lost a Senate primary in 2010, and Democrats are eager to avoid the same result this year. But things are getting messy — and expensive.
Smith, whose low-budget campaign has otherwise posed little threat to Cunningham, has denounced the intervention. But the episode threatens Democrats’ hopes of getting the better-funded, more moderate Cunningham through the primary unscathed.
“It’s so brazen and obvious. … They recognize that Cunningham is a strong candidate, and they’re worried about holding on to that seat,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “When Republicans are weighing in for somebody, they’ve made the judgment that they’re worried about Cal, and they’re not worried about her.”
Privately, Senate Democrats have been discussing the matter internally, with one fretting that Smith is “unelectable” in a general election and will be painted as a Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) acolyte. Few in the party want to criticize Smith publicly since no matter who emerges as Democrats’ nominee, North Carolina is a must-win to take back the Senate.
But the GOP infusion of money is increasing worries about disarray.
“You want your strongest candidate. And if she’s not the strongest candidate, yes, it makes it much tougher,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who supports Cunningham. “There’s just too much money in politics, and they spend it on trying to get the weakest candidate to run against” Tillis.
Democrats have used similar tactics in past Senate races in Missouri and West Virginia to elevate weak Republicans but decry the practice in their own internal politics. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who referred to Tillis as “extremely weak” in his reelection campaign, said the GOP is “known for voter suppression and playing games with voters, and they are taking it to new heights here.”
Still, some Democrats worry the effort will be at least partially successful.
“It's certainly made it more challenging to have over $2 million dumped into an ad buy against Cal Cunningham and what looks to be an attempt by Republicans to sway the primary,” said MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, which endorsed Cunningham. “I still feel confident about his chances in the primary. It's just unfortunate that it's going to mean spending more resources.”
Faith and Power PAC's ads were placed by a media buyer used by a number of conservative organizations, and the PAC uses Chain Bridge Bank, which has deep ties to Republicans. Faith and Power PAC did not respond to emails. A spokesperson for the GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, which also uses Chain Bridge Bank, did not respond to requests for comment.
Cunningham and his campaign have sought to amplify the super PAC's GOP ties.
“My gut tells me North Carolinians have a really strong BS meter. And this is triggering it," Cunningham said in a statement.
The turn in the race has been stunning: Just three months ago, Tillis faced a barrage of attacks from his own party and booked a massive TV buy to defend against a challenger accusing him of being insufficiently conservative. His challenger ultimately dropped out and Tillis scaled back his TV buy, though he is still working to win back his conservative base.
“Cal Cunningham’s spending a lot of his cash on hand. So, I think he must be worried. Otherwise you wouldn’t spend your cash on hand in advance of the primary,” Tillis said in an interview.
He also brushed aside a question about Republicans appearing to intervene in the Democratic race, pointing out the ads were a positive message about Smith.
Democratic leaders said the GOP’s interest in tanking Cunningham is a sign of his strength.
Republicans think “Cal Cunningham is the strongest, from what I’ve seen, to take on the Republican incumbent there,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.
The public polling in the race is scarce, though Democrats believe months of heavy spending laid the groundwork for Cunningham to prevail. VoteVets, a group that supports Democratic veterans and endorsed Cunningham’s campaign, has spent $6 million between its super PAC and an affiliated nonprofit on positive ads for his candidacy. Cunningham has spent six figures on TV, and his campaign is also running TV ads with coordinated spending from the DSCC. Most of those efforts were underway before the apparent intervention from Republicans, but the spending has increased in the past week.
Another mysterious super PAC — Carolina Blue — was created last week and has spent $1.1 million backing Cunningham, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. The group has ties to national Democrats: It uses the same media buyer and bank as Senate Majority PAC, a top Democratic outside group. A Senate Majority PAC spokesperson did not return requests for comment.
A poll released Wednesday showed Cunningham leading Smith by double digits, but with nearly half of likely voters still undecided. But even if Cunningham wins, Republicans are reveling in Democrats’ internal discord.
“Cal Cunningham has never won a federal race he’s ran for. To suggest that this is an unbelievable recruit that Chuck Schumer got? He has no proven track record and is not known in the state,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “Schumer has funded 100 percent of the Cunningham campaign. Why would they complain if somebody else funded the opponent?”
Cunningham, who represented an area north of Charlotte in the state Senate for one term nearly two decades ago, is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and has the endorsement of the DSCC, as well as a variety of North Carolina politicians and organizations.
Smith was first elected in 2014 to an eastern North Carolina state Senate seat. She’s struggled to raise money, hauling in only slightly above $200,000 last year, with just $94,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2019. Cunningham entered January with $1.7 million in the bank.
Smith expressed frustration at the idea that she is a weaker general election candidate, saying in an interview that there is a "certain privilege that exudes from these statements."
"Traditional D.C. says that the strength and the weakness of a candidate is based on their money. … We know that their theory is wrong," she said. "Time and time again, the DSCC and D.C. — they've backed well-financed candidates, only to have them lose."
Still, the Republicans' tactic may be a boon for Smith's campaign, which hasn’t spent any money on TV. Harrison Hickman, a pollster and consultant for former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), said Republicans were “astute” in boosting Smith because what an unknown candidate “needs more than anything else is name recognition and popularity.” But he said there could be “backlash” if voters are aware of the group’s GOP ties.
Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state, said Cunningham had a “very comfortable” lead in the race just a few weeks ago. Now, he said, it’s “no sure thing.”