North Carolina Dems brace for a messy Senate primary

North Carolina Dems brace for a messy Senate primaryFebruary 2, 2021

Democrats’ loss in the North Carolina Senate race was the narrowest of several stinging defeats last November. But with the state’s other Senate seat open next year, plans for a resurgence are already underway even amid tensions over primary strategy and the party’s history of backing white candidates over Black statewide hopefuls.

The 2022 race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr is crucial to bolstering Democrats’ tenuous majority. North Carolina is one of three top targets for the party looking to protect its 50-50 control of the Senate, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But it’s easily the toughest of the three: It’s the only one President Joe Biden didn’t carry last year, and Democrats have lost four straight Senate races in the state dating back to 2010.

Democrats weren’t entirely unsuccessful in 2020: Gov. Roy Cooper narrowly won a second term, and other statewide officials were reelected. But the revelation of an extramarital affair derailed Cal Cunningham’s Senate campaign, and Democrats ended up losing what was at the time the most expensive race in Senate history.

Cunningham’s defeat, along with the subsequent election of now-Sen. Raphael Warnock in a special election last month in Georgia, has prompted some Democrats to question the party’s tactics, including its past heavy-handed approach to the primary. Cunningham, a white military veteran and former state lawmaker, was recruited by the national party, which spent millions to ensure his nomination in the March 2020 Democratic primary, while Warnock, a Black pastor also recruited and endorsed by the national party, emerged from a crowded field before winning the runoff.

State Sen. Jeff Jackson, whose biography closely matches Cunningham’s, entered the race last week with a splashy video promising a 100-county grassroots campaign and dismissing an agenda “imported from D.C. or donors,” a not-so-subtle dig at the unsuccessful 2020 campaign.

“I think the play last time around was to hope that Biden had big coattails and to be very cautious,” Jackson, a captain in the Army National Guard, said in an interview after launching his campaign last week. “That is not going to work in 2022. If we campaign soft, we lose.”

“We’re going to have to be very energetic and very transparent in order to generate the enthusiasm that we’re going to need to win in a midterm when our party already has the presidency and Congress,” Jackson added. “This is going to have to be a completely different type of effort. If we try to run the script that gets handed down by D.C., we will sound phony — and we will get crushed.”

Jackson already announced raising $500,000 in the first 48 hours after launching his campaign, a hefty sum for a first-time statewide candidate. But that’s unlikely to scare off other contenders in what’s expected to become a crowded primary field.

North Carolina could end up being ground zero for a confluence of dynamics Democrats will face in Senate contests next year, including the likelihood of crowded and expensive primaries in competitive states. And after flipping two seats in Georgia behind enormous Black turnout with Warnock on the ballot, many Democrats, particularly in North Carolina, are already talking about a renewed focus on diverse candidates who can rev up the base.

Democrats in the state and in Washington emphasize that it’s early in the process, and the ultimate makeup of the field is unclear. Along with Jackson, former state Sen. Erica Smith, a Black woman who lost the primary to Cunningham last year, is running again.

Cheri Beasley, the Black former state Supreme Court chief justice who lost by only 401 votes in 2020, is looking seriously at running, according to a person who has spoken with her and requested anonymity to detail private conversations. A second person who has spoken with Beasley said she is being “thoughtful” about the campaign but is very seriously considering it.

State Attorney General Josh Stein, who won reelection last year, is a potential candidate, though some expect him to wait for the open governor’s race in 2024. And Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor and Obama Transportation secretary, has again been mentioned by Democrats as a sought-after candidate, though it’s unclear whether he’s considering the race after consistently passing in previous elections. Other potential contenders include Anita Earls, a state Supreme Court justice, state Sen. Sydney Batch, and Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, according to a Democrat familiar with the dynamics.

“There’s a large group of people that have not had the time they need to think about the recruitment effort, and once that happens it’ll move faster and change,” said one veteran Democratic operative.

Morgan Jackson, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state and top political adviser to Cooper, said there have been a lot of conversations in the state about how to approach the race, and potential candidates are looking at running earlier than they may have in other cycles.

“What Jeff has done is fired a starter pistol for this race,” said Jackson, who is not related to the Senate candidate.

“There are a lot of people who look at the insurrection at the Capitol, they look what happened in Georgia and say, ‘Times are changing,’” he added. “I think you’re going to see a lot of people who, maybe the timing hasn’t been right, decide they can’t wait any longer.”

Some Democrats in the state are vocally pushing for a Black woman to be the party’s standard-bearer in 2022. Kara Hollingsworth, a Democratic operative at a firm that works with Black women candidates, said the party should invest resources in a candidate of color at the top of the ticket.

“We should go with someone who can show us something different,” said Hollingsworth, who also worked for then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign in the state. “Black candidates and Black women are battle-tested as having run unconventional campaigns. And yet we don’t put them at the top of the ticket, even when they’ve proven over and over again that they can overperform.”

Jackson, for his part, addressed the question of diversity on his Twitter shortly after his announcement, saying the burden was on him to show he was an advocate for equality. In the interview, he cited standing up to racial gerrymandering and the state’s controversial bathroom bill — and for the equal-rights amendment — as demonstrations of his commitment.

“I’m not a quiet ally,” Jackson said.

Republicans are already trying to use the primary to their advantage by comparing it with 2020.

“It almost feels like exactly the same race, and we’re singing the same song again,” said Michael Whatley, the state GOP chair, predicting “a lot of mud” on the Democratic side.

But the Republican side could have a fight on their hands, too. Former Rep. Mark Walker is already running and ended 2020 with $830,000 in the bank, some of it raised after his Senate announcement and some left over from his House campaigns. Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law, has been considering a campaign. Former Gov. Pat McCrory is considering a bid as well, and other candidates could emerge in the coming months.

Beasley, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, could have powerful allies if she chooses to run.

“We’re closely watching the North Carolina Senate race, and are always thrilled to see strong candidates like Cheri Beasley considering the race. The Senate needs more voices like hers,” said Ben Ray, a spokesperson for EMILY’s List, the national organization that supports Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights.

Smith, who lost the Democratic primary last year, said in an interview employing the same strategy next year “expecting a different result is absolute insanity.” Smith struggled to raise money against Cunningham, who had national support, and could struggle similarly in a more crowded field, though she brushed off that concern. She has been vocal online trying to gin up support for her liberal agenda. She said the fact that there are no Black women in the Senate is an important consideration.

“As proud as I am of Vice President Harris, it has left a hole. And I am so excited about the momentum that we have been building around that conversation,” she said.

Wayne Goodwin, the chair of the state Democratic Party, said his organization will stay neutral in a primary but continue to invest in a ground game after the party’s top-of-the-ticket disappointments last year. He, like other Democrats in the state, pointed to Georgia as instructive for how Democrats could move forward, although the racial and economic makeup of the two southern states is not a direct match.

“Our party will focus on building a strong party infrastructure that will help whomever the party nominee is,” Goodwin said. “It’s certainly important and vital that we do more than ever to support the base of our party and grow the base of our party.”

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