Democrats Continue Tar Heel State Talent Hunt

Posted June 3, 2009 at 6:04pm

At times this year it has seemed as if Democrats have been working to select their 2010 challenger to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) through a process of elimination.

Although Burr’s recent polling numbers have Democrats smelling blood, the party has heard many more “noes— than “yeses— when it comes to its recruiting efforts.

But despite big names like state Attorney General Roy Cooper and Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton passing on the race, a few heavy hitters remain in the mix, including Democratic Reps. Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre.

After declaring his intention to run for re-election earlier this year, Shuler has more recently indicated that he might be taking a second look at the Senate race. McIntyre has also recently hinted that he might be open to a Senate run.

Either would become the instant frontrunner in a Democratic primary that has so far only drawn second-tier candidates. And either would likely earn the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the party establishment.

But some recent chatter has begun to focus on the potential candidacy of Cal Cunningham (D), a lawyer and former state Senator who served in the Iraq War and is currently part of the Army Reserve Judge Advocate General Corps.

“I’m having conversations with friends and fellow Democrats,— Cunningham said on Wednesday. “We’re taking a very close and very serious look at this race.—

Like Shuler and McIntyre, Cunningham has given little indication as to when he plans to make an announcement on the race.

“I know that for North Carolina and for the Democratic Party here that I need to make a timely decision,— he said.

Former Tar Heel state Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Meek said this week that if Cunningham were to enter the race, he would be someone who would have to be taken seriously.

“He’s got an excellent profile in terms of his biography,— Meek said. “He’s perceived as being a little bit more liberal than, say, Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler.—

If one of the Congressmen decides to run and the DSCC and local party leaders can’t clear the field, Cunningham could be a dark horse in a primary where the electorate would be mostly hard-core Democrats in a midterm election.

“There’s certainly going to be some folks who perceive Shuler or McIntyre as being too conservative,— he said.

A few other Democrats who are being mentioned are state Sen. Dan Blue, attorney and former Obama fundraiser Kenneth Lewis and Rep. Brad Miller, although Miller said this week that he has no plans to run and has not spoken to the DSCC.

As speculation continues to mount over who will step up to take on the first-term Senator, Burr’s campaign consultant, Paul Shumaker, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Democratic recruitment game in North Carolina goes on well into the summer and fall.

“Let the Democrats do what the Democrats need to go through,— Shumaker said. “We’re focused on … building the fundamentals of a strong campaign for next year.—

That includes the launch of a new voter registration Web site,, and a fundraising schedule that Shumaker said put the campaign over the $2 million cash-on-hand mark as of the end of May. Burr raised just over $700,000 in the first quarter and reported $1.6 million in cash on hand at the end of March.

As for his legislative duties, Burr has had a high-profile week, teaming with his home-state colleague, Sen. Kay Hagan (D), to fight legislation that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the tobacco industry. The Tar Heel State is the nation’s largest grower of tobacco.

But Democratic officials in Washington and North Carolina said that taking a bit longer to find the right candidate isn’t hurting the party’s chances of defeating Burr next year. DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz said the committee views Burr as among the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election.

“It is not a problem right now,— Cunningham added. “I’m hearing Democrats say they want to make sure that we as a party have the best candidate in the next cycle.—

Democrats also have some recent history on their side. Hagan didn’t officially enter the 2008 race until November 2007, and she was far from the first choice on Democrats’ recruitment lists.

She went on to beat then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) by a 9-point margin in a state that surged for President Barack Obama late in the cycle.

Dole raised more money in the first quarter of 2007 than Burr did in the first quarter of 2009, and she started off in a somewhat better position when it came to early polling, but Meek warned that Burr is dangerous because he’s a better candidate than Dole.

“Though polls say he’s not as well-known as Elizabeth Dole was, Burr is going to get out there and work it, he’s a much better speaker and in a lot of ways he has a lot better natural abilities than Elizabeth Dole,— Meek said. “And certainly the climate in 2010 is not going to be as favorable as 2008.—