Secretary of State Elaine Marshall sought the Democratic nod for Senate once before, in 2002. She lost to former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who went on to lose to Elizabeth Dole – and then lost two years later to the man Marshall now wants to challenge, Richard Burr.
As for another Democratic hopeful, attorney Ken Lewis, the second chance isn’t so much a personal one as one for a cause. Back in the 1990s, Lewis helped with Harvey Gantt’s failed challenge to the late Sen. Jesse Helms. Now, as a candidate himself, Lewis wants another chance to elect North Carolina’s first black Democrat in the U.S. Senate.
Robertson also noted that former state Sen. Cal Cunningham passed on the 2010 race just a few weeks ago, then changed his mind. But I think a better description of Cunningham’s second chance is that his first effort at launching a political career fizzled after a single term in the state senate.
Spotted by party leaders as a potential Democratic star while he was student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill back in the 1990s, Cunningham won a Davidson County-based seat in 2000 but saw it redrawn into an unfavorable district for the 2002 election. He wisely chose not to run again, joining the U.S. Army Reserve the same year and going on to serve with distinction as an army prosecutor in Iraq.
While I appreciate the second-chances theme, I think the most likely outcome in 2010 is that all of these Democratic candidates will be left hoping for a third chance. While Richard Burr is a relatively unknown freshman senator, he bring little baggage into the race. He’s not unpopular, just unknown. That means he still has the opportunity and the means to define himself for the electorate in the coming months.
Overall, the environment doesn’t appear to be favorable to the Democratic challengers. The political winds could certainly shift, but right now they’re blowing Republican. Given a host of endangered Democratic incumbents and seats around the country, national party leaders will be directly most of their energies and funds elsewhere – saving Senate leader Harry Reid and longtime Sen. Chris Dodd, for example.
Still, you can understand why each of the Democratic candidates is running. There’s little to lose, and possibly a lot to gain.
Marshall can run without having to give up her job as secretary of state. As a female candidate who has won four statewide elections, she’s got to be considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. If she goes on to lose in November, few will blame her. If lightning strikes and she wins, she’ll probably be a Democratic hero in an adverse political cycle.
As for Cunningham and Lewis, they are ambitious politicians who need to introduce themselves to the statewide electorate. Again, few would blame either for losing to Burr in the fall should he wrest the nomination from Marshall. And a primary loss won’t kill either man’s chances to run for another office later on in a more favorable climate.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity to make political history here belongs to Richard Burr, by the way. Remember that the seat he holds has turned over every six years since Sam Ervin gave it up in 1974. Robert Morgan kept it for the Democrats that year. John East took it for the Republicans in 1980. Former Democratic Gov. Terry Sanford won it in 1986, then lost it to Republican Lauch Faircloth in 1992. The Breck Girl came along in 1998, made various messes, and then vacated it for Burr in 2004.
With Elizabeth Dole having lost Helms’ old seat after a single term, Burr has a shot at creating the first lengthy Senate career since the retirement of North Carolina’s two conservative powerhouses, Ervin and Helms.
No pressure, senator, no pressure.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.