GOP effort to interfere in North Carolina Democratic primary fails

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Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham will take on first-term Sen. Thom Tillis in November.

Republicans spent millions backing a progressive Senate candidate in North Carolina over the past five weeks, but on Tuesday, Democratic primary voters overwhelmingly rejected her and nominated former state Sen. Cal Cunningham instead.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Cunningham in October, believing him to be the strongest candidate to challenge first-term Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in November. North Carolina Democrats concurred, voting for him over state Sen. Erica Smith by a margin of 57% to 35%.

Smith had been the apparent beneficiary of nearly $3 million in advertisements funded by a Republican super PAC with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — a group whose sole goal is a large Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.

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The Senate Leadership Fund bankrolled pro-Smith ads by funneling money into the "progressive" Faith and Power PAC.

Faith and Power PAC's spots praised Smith's support for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, Donald Trump's impeachment, and gun control — each things the Senate Leadership Fund has vocally opposed. The ads dishonestly called Smith "one of us," though no actual progressives supported the Faith and Power PAC financially, and presented Cunningham as a moderate.

The stated aim of the Senate Leadership Fund's intervention in the race was to force Democrats to spend money in the primary on the primary race.

"We thought that with a relatively small investment we could force them to spend a lot," Stephen Law, Senate Leadership Fund president and CEO, told The Hill last month. "The goal was less to change the ultimate outcome in the Democrat[ic] primary than to force the Democrats into a high-spending situation."

On Wednesday, the group claimed in a press release that the effort had been a success. "Cal's complete lack of principles is the reason Chuck Schumer was forced to burn $15 million to save Cal from his own primary voters, and it's the reason Thom Tillis is in a strong position to defeat him in November." The organization did not immediately respond to an request for comment about its spending.

Cunningham's campaign dismissed this argument on Tuesday night, saying in a memo that any attempts to "spin this major strategic error as a 'success'" were "laughable."

"McConnell's super PAC failed to stop Cal's momentum, and just weeks after Republicans were wondering whether the primary would go to a runoff, Cal won decisively, with public polling leading up to tonight's results showing Cal winning across geographies and demographic groups," his campaign manager wrote.

And even if the Senate Leadership Fund's efforts did force extra primary spending, they may come at another cost. By presenting Cunningham as more of a mainstream candidate than Smith, the group's ads could making him more palatable to some voters in the general election and make it harder for Tillis to now frame Cunningham as a far-left candidate.

Recent polling suggests that Cunningham could be a real contender in November. A recent East Carolina University poll showed Tillis leading by a narrow 44% to 42% margin. A Marist poll released this week actually showed Cunningham 5 points ahead of Tillis, 48% to 43%.

In a memo Wednesday, the North Carolina Democratic Party said Tillis now is "limping into the general election as 'one of the most vulnerable senators' in the country, defined by his own weakness and still facing fractured support within his own base, dismal approval numbers, and recent Democratic successes and a changing electorate in North Carolina."

"Bottom Line: Senator Tillis enters the general election as one of the most vulnerable senators in the country facing a toss-up race because he’s a weak, self-serving politician who puts his reelection before the needs of his constituents," it wrote. "Voters don’t trust him, he still has to repair the damage he caused within his own party, he has the lowest approval rating of any incumbent Senator, and he is facing a different electorate than 2014 — all signs that point to North Carolina electing a new Democratic Senator in November."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.