North Carolina runoff challenge: make Democrats care

The race to oppose incumbent Sen. Richard Burr for North Carolina senator lacks buzz, and could see very low voter turnout.

Gerry Broome/AP
North Carolina Democratic Senate candidates Elaine Marshall (l.) and Cal Cunningham greet each other prior to a televised debate on June 10.

Tensions between North Carolina’s Democratic candidates for Senate – Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham – have soared since the May 4th primaries. A tight race and an estimated low-voter turnout indicate that Tuesday’s runoff could be a toss-up.

Ms. Marshall, who has served four terms as secretary of state, finished the primary with 36 percent of the votes – not enough to avoid a runoff. Her opponent, an Iraq war veteran and former state senator, received 27 percent of the votes, and has been edging closer to Marshall in the past month.

The latest numbers from Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based company that measures public opinion, found the two even – both receiving 36 percent of respondents' votes.

Marshall is seen as an experienced politician, while Cunningham, backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is seen as a “new face” who could appeal to disappointed Democrats.

The winner of the runoff will face tough competition from Republican incumbent Sen. Richard Burr, who has held his Senate seat since 2005. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Senator Burr has almost $5 million in available campaign funds.

Cunningham’s campaign launched a 20-stop “Beat Burr” tour of the state last week to show voters why he is better suited to challenge Mr. Burr. On the last day before the runoff, Cunningham will be knocking on doors, making speeches and traveling 588 miles, said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for Cunningham’s campaign.

Marshall has been focusing her efforts on making direct calls to voters. Her campaign plans on making 100,000 phone calls Thursday night, said Sam Swartz, spokesman for the Marshall campaign. Critical for Marshall could be former supporters of attorney Ken Lewis. He won 17 percent of the primary vote and has thrown his support behind Marshall.

Both candidates could be hurt by low voter turnout. Election officials are expecting between 100,000 and 150,000 voters on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. Turnout for runoffs is typically lower than for primaries, but it could be even lower for this race, which hasn't had any campaign ads – neither candidate raised enough money to buy them.

Both campaigns said they hope statewide phone calls will be enough to encourage voters to get out and vote.

Marshall and Cunningham have been attacking each others’ platforms with more vigor since the primary, leaving voters unsure of where the candidates stand. Cunningham has used his speeches to bash Marshall’s plans for Social Security since the primary. He says Marshall wants to increase the retirement age for receiving Social Security benefits, a claim Marshall has denied.

In another poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, both candidates lost popularity and recognition in the runoff campaign. Seventy-four percent of North Carolinians are unsure of their opinion of Cunningham, and 62 percent are unsure of their opinion of Marshall. Those numbers have increased significantly since the same poll was conducted before the primary.


Primary election results: establishment candidates battered

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