Cash, coordination the focus of heated Democratic Senate primary

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RALEIGH — In the Democratic primary race determining who will face Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis, the top two contenders are facing last-minute scrutiny on who is backing their campaigns, and how.

Cal Cunningham, who served one-term in the state Senate in 2000 and lost a Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in 2010, is the presumed frontrunner. Current, multi-term state Sen. Erica Smith of northeastern N.C. is considered a viable alternative to Cunningham.

Cunningham was a 2020 candidate for N.C. lieutenant governor until, according to Smith, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a national Democratic group led by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, asked Cunningham to leave that race and join the Senate primary.

Smith, an African American, said, while speaking at a church in January, 2020, that the DSCC endorsed Cunningham because, “Sen. Schumer, for whatever reason, did not want an African American running for U.S. Senate in North Carolina.”

She said, not only did they give Cunningham an endorsement, but lots of funding from outside the state, including “55 of [Schumer’s] wealthy donors, who are New York billionaires.”

The DSCC statement on Oct. 31, 2019, endorsing Cunningham praised his military record, saying “As a military prosecutor, who served three active duty tours and was awarded the Bronze Star, Cal will continue to serve with distinction in the Senate and we are proud to support him in this critical race.”

Cunningham also received the endorsement of the state’s powerful teacher lobby, the North Carolina Association of Educators, on Feb. 10, and the endorsement of late Sen. Kay Hagan before she passed away in 2019.

The funding and endorsements have helped Cunningham create a solid lead, with a Feb. 6 Public Policy Polling survey showing him with 29% to Smith’s 10%. Three weeks earlier, PPP only had Cunningham leading Smith by 9 points.

But Smith is now receiving support from an unusual source — Republican-linked PAC Faith and Power. As of Feb. 11, this group has dedicated over $2.4 million to ad buys in favor of Smith around the state. Little is known about their motive or leadership.

Cunningham denounced these ads on social media, saying, “Washington Republicans know Senator Tillis is weak, and apparently they don’t like his chances against me in November. Now they’re resorting to shady tactics to meddle in our election—and it’s disrespectful to North Carolina voters.”

Erica Smith, also responded to this development, but disagreed with Cunningham that it showed he was the stronger candidate.

“To those pondering the rumor that Republicans are supporting me because Thom Tillis thinks he has a better chance of beating me in the General, I have just one question: when was the last time Thom Tillis was right about anything?” Smith said in a letter released to the media.

She continued, “We have been astronomically outraised by our primary opponent who has attempted to clear the field of this race with DC influence and a Corporate funded SuperPAC.”

Smith also said in the statement that she “disavows and disassociates” with the Faith and Power PAC’s ad buy in support of her candidacy. The ads tout her support of Medicare for all and the Green New Deal, while showing pictures of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The ads conclude by calling Smith “the only proven progressive.”

Tillis campaign spokesman, Andrew Romeo, told North State Journal, “The outrage from North Carolina Democrats over a positive ad buy for one of their candidates is curious considering they didn’t seem to have a problem with Harry Reid spending millions on attack ads against Senator Tillis during his 2014 primary.”

Romeo also said that they were not aware of this group until their buy became public, but “couldn’t be the least bit concerned with which radical liberal emerges from the chaos that is the Democratic primary.”

Cunningham has had some of his own headlines surrounding PACs and funding in the last month of the campaign. A campaign watchdog group filed a complaint with the FEC against him, accusing him of coordinating with VoteVets, a PAC that has spent over $6 million in support of his candidacy. They accuse him of making images available so they can be used in ads by the group. They also accuse Cunningham of synchronizing their email fundraising campaigns with the PAC. A candidate’s campaign is not allowed to coordinate with PACs.

“Cal Cunningham is so afraid of losing to Erica Smith that he appears to have violated FEC regulations again so that his Super PAC can come to his rescue,” said NCGOP spokesman Jeff Hauser in a statement.

Cal Cunningham’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request to comment on this story.

EDIT: Cunningham’s campaign responded after the article was published, saying the accusations are false and they did not coordinate with VoteVets Action Fund.

Aaron Simpson, press secretary for Cal for NC, also told NSJ that, “North Carolinians have a clear choice between Senator Thom Tillis, who has collected more than $2.2 million from corporate PACs while doing their bidding in Washington, and former military prosecutor Cal Cunningham, who has taken on corruption among government contractors, released a detailed anti-corruption plan, and earned the endorsement of End Citizens United. Cal is committed to getting big money out of politics, including by overturning Citizens United and eliminating dark money, which will be one of his top priorities when he is elected to the Senate.”