Disappointed Cunningham supporters learn tough lesson in state politics

by Keith Barber

Cal Cunningham delivers his concession speech to supporters, volunteers and staffers on election night, after his defeat to Elaine Marshall became apparent. Cunningham offered his unequivocal support to Marshall’s candidacy and encouraged his supporters to rally behind the Democratic nominee. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Around 9:15 p.m. on June 22, Cal Cunningham, his wife, Elizabeth, and two young children, Caroline and Will, made a quick exit from the Edward Smith Civic Center in downtown Lexington. Cunningham had just delivered his concession speech to a group of roughly 75 supporters, campaign volunteers and staffers after losing to Elaine Marshall by 20 percentage points in the US Senate runoff election.

As he and his family attempted to leave the building, Cunningham was peppered with questions by a phalanx of reporters. One noted that the runoff election cost the state government $5 million. With only 213,000 voters casting their ballots, it ended up costing the taxpayers about $25 per voter.

“Is it worth the money to have these runoffs?” the reporter asked. The question appeared to hit Cunningham right between the eyes, underscoring the fact that the candidate didn’t have to call for a runoff election after losing the primary to Elaine Marshall by 9 points.

“We live in a democracy; we hold elections,” Cunningham said.

“That’s how we decide our candidates. That’s how we decide who represents us in the US Senate and that’s the right way to do it.”

As painful as the loss must have’ been for Cunningham that night, it proved equally agonizing for his legion of loyal supporters.

Matthew Cornelius worked as a volunteer on the Cunningham campaign. He, along with Frank Eaton, Cunningham’s director of new media, launched the “Cal Cunningham for US Senate 2010!” Facebook page more than a year ago.

Cornelius, Eaton and a number of prominent Winston-Salem Democrats strongly encouraged Cunningham, a former state senator and Iraq war veteran, to run for US Senate. And after seven months of coaxing, Cunningham announced his decision in early December. Cornelius, Eaton and many of Cunningham’s Winston-Salem supporters openly expressed their firm belief that their candidate was the only one who could knock off incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr.

Despite his late entry in the race, Cunningham surpassed Marshall, the NC secretary of state, and Ken Lewis, a Chapel Hill lawyer, in fundraising. Cunningham clearly had the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or DSCC. According to the Federal Elections Commission website, Cunningham received $80,000 in direct contributions from the DSCC and an additional $66,000 from Democratic leadership PACs and elected Democrat officials. Neither Marshall nor Lewis received any contributions from the DSCC.

Cunningham successfully waged his campaign on a number of media platforms. Eaton directed Cunningham’s “Voices of North Carolina” series — a set of documentary short films that illustrated the primary planks of the candidate’s platform by telling the stories of average North Carolinians. The six-part series aired on YouTube this spring garnered almost 10,000 hits, Eaton said. With the support of Washington Democrats and a fundraising advantage, Cunningham aired television commercials ahead of both Marshall and Lewis.

All the signs were positive for the Cunningham campaign on May 4, but Marshall still won the primary by a significant margin. However, Ken Lewis garnered 17 percent of the vote, which meant a June 22 runoff.

Cornelius said the size of Marshall’s primary victory came as a bit of shock to Cunningham’s supporters.

“One of the things I learned is that regardless of the national debate that goes on, whether it’s a good year to be an incumbent or a bad year to be an incumbent, if you’re well known to voters and they’ve seen your name and they’ve seen you at events before, they’re going to stick with you,” Cornelius said. “Elaine is not only a very good campaigner and ran a great campaign, and just a super-smart and terrific public servant, but the lead that she had in name recognition and recognition with the older voters who decide primary elections proved a really steep climb.”

One of the hard lessons of the primary loss was simply this:

Campaigns are won on the ground, not on the internet or the airwaves.

“At the end of the day, it’s the teacher, it’s the farmer, it’s the guy who works at the factory that goes and makes up the election,” said Cornelius. “What this campaign has showed me is that as much as I feel like I know the state of North Carolina, there’s still so much to learn, because there are so many people that are so committed, not just to the Democratic Party but to democracy in general, and who want the best for the state.”

After the May 4 defeat, Cunningham made major changes to his campaign staff — most notably, the firing of campaign manager Rick Fromberg. Cunningham also replaced Media Relations Director Angela Guyadeen. Eaton stepped down from his position after the primary, because “it was purely a ground game” from that point forward, he said.

Cunningham mobilized his campaign staff and began making a big push to the June 22 runoff with a comprehensive media blitz that included two one-on-one debates with Marshall.

In the first debate, which aired on WRAL- TV on June 10, Cunningham appeared more relaxed and at ease than he had in previous television appearances. The debate offered few fireworks as the candidates mostly agreed on the issues. The second televised debate aired June 15.

With one week left until the runoff, both candidates pounded the campaign trail, and it appeared Cunningham was making up some ground. A survey conducted by Public Policy Polling revealed that Cunningham and Marshall were locked in a dead heat heading into the runoff. But low voter turnout (4.5 percent) on Election Day severely hampered Cunningham’s chances of pulling off the upset.

Marshall, the first woman ever elected to statewide office in North Carolina history, attributed her 20-point win to the commitment of her grassroots organization composed of volunteer networks across the state.

The depth and breadth of Marshall’s support revealed itself on election night as she won 83 of 100 counties.

In his concession speech, Cunningham praised Marshall for her “tenacious” style of campaigning and offered his unequivocal support to her campaign against Burr.

“In addition to the endorsement that I provide her and her campaign tonight, I’ve also offered to her to campaign in any part of this state, to help her continue to build support, to help ensure that this party comes together, that this ticket is unified because any differences that she and I might have shared in this campaign pale next to the differences we have with Richard Burr,” Cunningham told his supporters.

After her resounding victory, the Democratic Party establishment rushed to express its support of Marshall’s candidacy.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the chairman of the DSCC, said Marshall represents a clear choice for North Carolinians.

“Democrat Elaine Marshall is focused on rebuilding the North Carolina economy and creating new jobs while Senator Burr wants to do even more to protect big banks, the oil companies and the insurance companies,” Menendez said in a statement.

Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, congratulated Marshall on a hard-fought win, and drew sharp contrasts between her record of service and Burr’s voting record in Congress.

“For 16 years Richard Burr has pocketed thousands of dollars in campaign cash from Wall Street, as Elaine Marshall has worked as secretary of state to hold Wall Street accountable,” Kaine said in a statement.

Even Burr congratulated Marshall on her victory, while making his case for another term in the US Senate.

“The Democrats’ primary has shown that North Carolina voters will have a clear choice in November between two vastly different directions for our country,” Burr said. “I am proud of my record of less spending and smaller federal government, and I trust the voters of North Carolina to pick a senator that reflects their vision for our state and nation.”

Rather than basking in the glow of victory, Marshall hit the campaign trail immediately, picking up endorsements of prominent Democrats along the way. Marshall’s victory gave her a nice bounce in the polls.

According to Rasmussen Reports, Marshall and Burr are in a virtual dead heat among North Carolina voters with Burr leading 44-43. Marshall’s greatest disadvantage appears to be in the area of fundraising. According to the Federal Elections Commission website, Burr has $4.9 million in his campaign war chest. Marshall currently has $186,353 on hand.

On June 26, Marshall, Burr and Libertarian candidate Michael Beitler, participated in a candidate forum during the annual meeting of the NC Bar Association in Wilmington.

Marshall emphasized the differences between her and Burr’s positions on the issues of offshore drilling, immigration and creating jobs in North Carolina. Burr said he supports the expansion of offshore drilling and tougher immigration laws with no pathway to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the United States. Burr also said he supports spending cuts to help rein in the budget deficit and the national debt.

Marshall said she opposes the expansion of offshore drilling and supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the United States. Given the current recession, Marshall said this is not the time for the federal government to be cutting back programs or funding to states.

Beitler, a UNCG professor, said he disagrees with President Obama’s moratorium on the expansion of offshore drilling, citing the potential loss of thousands of jobs. Beitler also called himself as the only fiscal conservative in the US Senate race.