Democrat Cal Cunningham enters US Senate race, and draws fire from both sides

Democrat Cal Cunningham entered North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race Monday, scrambling a primary race about to get more crowded and drawing fire from the Republican incumbent.

Though there’s been no formal endorsement, Cunningham appears to be running with the blessing of Senate Democrats. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis’s campaign called him “Chuck Schumer’s handpicked candidate,” referring to the Senate Minority Leader.

“I wouldn’t be in the race if I didn’t see a clear path to pulling together all the parts of my party to run and win a campaign with the stakes this high,” Cunningham told the Observer.

North Carolina’s 2020 Senate race is widely expected to be one of the most competitive in the country. Some analysts have called Tillis one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents. He faces Raleigh businessman Garland Tucker and Sandy Smith of Pitt County in the March 3 Republican primary.

Two other Democrats, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller and state Sen. Erica Smith are also running. Former state Sen. Eric Mansfield is expected to announce soon. And for state Treasurer Richard Moore said he’s considering the race.

Former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx tweeted over the weekend that he won’t run in in 2020.

Cunningham jumped into the Senate race after having run for lieutenant governor since early January.

Cunningham is a former state Senator from Lexington. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, losing a primary runoff to Elaine Marshall, who went on to lose to Republican Sen. Richard Burr.

Smith criticized him Monday as “an opportunist looking for a contest he can win.”

Alluding to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, she said, “If they decide to consider Cal Cunningham, at the end of the day the next U.S. senator to represent North Carolina is not decided by five to six people in a back room. It’s decided by the people of North Carolina.”

Smith points to an Emerson College Poll this month that showed her leading Tillis 46% to 39%, with 15% of voters undecided.

“There are other really good Democrats who will vie for the nomination and at the end of the day the race won’t be about her, it won’t be about me. It’ll be about the people of North Carolina,” Cunningham said. “And my job is to make the best case to the voters of North Carolina why I would do the best job standing up for them in the U.S. Senate.”

Democrats have been looking for a candidate with name recognition and fundraising ability to run for the seat. They’ve met with Cunningham, Smith, Moore, former Treasurer Janet Cowell and state Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte.

In his campaign for lieutenant governor, Cunningham reported raising nearly $315,000 through December. In the Democratic Senate race, Fuller reported raising just $24,000 through March. Erica Smith has raised about $17,000. Cunningham could not use money raised for a state race for a federal contest.

“Cunningham has definitely gotten the attention of Senate Democrats,” said analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.

“One thing to watch over the next 30 days is whether the DSCC actually endorses him as they have done with a candidate in Iowa who faces a primary. Cunningham’s announcement doesn’t change our rating of (the Senate seat as) likely Republican. The onus is on him to earn a more competitive rating.”

Cunningham was student body president at the UNC-Chapel Hill after transferring to the school as a sophomore. He finished his dissertation for the London School of Economics while enrolled at Carolina Law and won election to the N.C. Senate at 27.

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.