US Senate race remains wide open for Democratic hopefuls

by Keith Barber

Only two North Carolina Democrats have officially announced they will vie for their party’s nomination to challenge Sen. Richard Burr in next year’s midterm elections. NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Chapel Hill lawyer Ken Lewis have both publicly stated they will battle for their party’s nomination in the May primary. Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy has expressed interest in a possible US Senate run but has not yet announced his intentions.

In the past month, Lexington attorney Cal Cunningham, US Rep. Bob Etheridge and former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker have all bowed out of the race. However, things could change in the weeks ahead, particularly in the case of Cunningham.

Matthew Cornelius, a Winston-Salem Democrat, helped launch a web page entitled, “Cal Cunningham for US Senate, 2010” on the social networking site Facebook.

“Cal is still a ‘no,’ but he’s listening and that listening is pretty broad,” Cornelius said.

Cunningham, who was elected to the state Senate in 2000 at the age of 27, will listen to the advice of friends, family, people around the state and national party officials that want him to reconsider, said Cornelius.

Cunningham is an attractive candidate to take on Burr because he appeals to younger people and older voters, while maintaining the energy and magnetism that would bring out the “sleeping Democrats” in 2010, Cornelius said.

“To compete against Burr, you need a candidate that will drive that energy,” he added.

Cornelius created the web page last May with Frank Eaton, president of the Forsyth County Young Democrats. The Facebook page took on a life of its own, eventually boasting a membership of more than 1,200 supporters.

“We sort of felt that he was the guy who would make people wake up at 8 a.m. on Saturday, go get ready for phone banking and walk around for 12 hours a day canvassing,” Cornelius said. “You have to have a candidate who is going to excite a massive amount of people,” Cornelius said.

“This is engaging the Obama voters that would be the quickest to slip away,” he continued. “That would be organizing all the young groups to get out, knock on doors and phone bank. It’s going to take a candidate that has a clear message.”

Cornelius said the Democrat that ultimately wins the party’s nomination should focus on the economy and foreign policy during the 2010 campaign. He said Cunningham’s military record could go a long way with North Carolina voters.

Cunningham received the Bronze Star while serving overseas as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A captain and paratrooper in the US Army Reserves, Cunningham, 35, received the medal for “exceptionally meritorious service to the United States” as the senior trial counsel in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, Multi-National Corps-Iraq. He presided over the largest court-martial jurisdiction in the Army and helped in supervising, training and overseeing 27 attorneys and 70 paralegals, executing criminal law missions within the Multi-National Corps-Iraq Theater of Operations.

In October, Ken Lewis officially launched his US Senate campaign at a family farm in Roxboro. Lewis, who attended Harvard Law School with First Lady Michelle Obama, assisted in President Obama’s fundraising efforts in the state last year.

Ferrel Guillory, a professor of journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, said Lewis’ connection to the White House could prove valuable to his Senate run.

“While he is not a hand-picked candidate of the Obama White House, clearly his alliance with the president, having worked for the president in the campaign, gives him some linkages,” Guillory said. “He begins with the potential to develop a legitimate base of support.”

Lewis said he’s had a number of “productive conversations” with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and looks forward to debating Sen. Burr on the issues that matter most to North Carolina voters.

“I think Senator Burr has been a much different senator than I would be,” Lewis said. “He voted 90 percent of the time with the policies of George W. Bush. He voted for economic policies that led to the economic meltdown. He voted for tax breaks to the super rich. That money could’ve better been used to invest in the future of our country.”

Lewis said Democratic candidates must articulate the party’s vision for the future during the 2010 elections. Lewis said he supports the economic stimulus package by Congress and said he would focus on the healthcare debate in his Senate campaign.

“I’m interested in providing North Carolinians with stability in healthcare, and dealing with real issues that North Carolinians face,” Lewis said. “These healthcare bills radically change the way healthcare insurance works in this country.”

Lewis acknowledged that both the House and Senate healthcare reform bills are not perfect and will likely undergo significant revisions before they are passed, but the measures represent meaningful reform to the nation’s healthcare system.

“North Carolinians will not be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, they won’t be dropped by insurance companies because they lost their jobs, and insurance will become more affordable,” Lewis said.

Lewis criticized Burr’s introduction of the Patient’s Choice Act, saying it would “blow up” employer-based health care plans by removing the tax deductions employers receive for providing their employees with healthcare insurance. “There would be a great gap in resources,” Lewis said. “His bill is going in the wrong direction.” In a Nov. 11 survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, Burr leads Elaine Marshall 45-34, Kevin Foy 44-32, and Ken Lewis by a margin of 45-32. The survey attributed the Democrats low numbers to a lack of name recognition. Guillory said Marshall is perhaps the most well known Democrat still in the field of contenders but faces her own set of challenges. “She’s never had to raise the multimillions it’s going to take to run a Senate race and she hasn’t spent much time addressing national issues,” Guillory said. “The Democratic electorate tilts toward women, but she’s not a fresh face.” Lewis emphasized he’s not a career politician and will bring a fresh perspective to the US Senate if elected. “What motivates me is the opportunity to make a difference,” he said. “We have an opportunity to make government work on behalf of our people. Alternative energy, education and healthcare are issues that are very important — issues we’ve avoided for many years. I feel my personal and professional background has prepared me to lead in the Senate.”

USSenate candidate Ken Lewis (left) is greeted by Winston-Salem MayorAllen Joines during the CHANGE Fall Delegates Assembly at Union BaptistChurch on Nov. 1. Lewis, a Chapel Hill attorney, and NC Secretary ofState Elaine Marshall are two announced Democratic candidates who willvie their party’s nomination in 2010 . (photo by Keith T. Barber)