After a lot of angst about finding a good candidate to run against Thom Tillis, Democrats now appear to have enough for a good primary next March. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee initially wanted Attorney General Josh Stein or former Charlotte Mayor and Obama’s Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, but both took passes. Apparently, Chuck Schumer and company are talking to a lot of folks. 

Already, state Senator Erica Smith has announced her candidacy. So has Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller. Former state Senator and 2012 Lieutenant Governor candidate Eric Mansfield announced last week that he’s forming an exploratory committee.

In the past three weeks or so a slew of other names popped up. State Senator Jeff Jackson is looking at the race again after initially taking a pass. Rumor also has it that Schumer is also trying to lure former Treasurer Janet Cowell into the race. Apparently, state Representative Brian Turner of Buncombe County is eying the race. Then, on NC Spin, a Republican operative mentioned Dan McCready and state Representative Rachel Hunt, who is former Governor Jim Hunt’s daughter. 

So let’s unpack some of this speculation. First, Senator Jackson would bring a big following among younger voters and activists. He’s got a huge social media following and is one of the more adept communicators on those platforms among Democratic politicians in the state. He’s also proven to be a solid fundraiser. He would start the primary in solid position. 

Janet Cowell would be a formidable primary candidate. She’s supposedly being recruited by both the DSCC and EMILY’s List which would bring solid institutional support and the money that follows it. She walked away from the Treasurer’s office on her own terms and after a successful tenure. With a primary electorate that is roughly 60% women, she would enter the race as a clear frontrunner in the primary. 

If Cowell takes a pass, Representative Turner may jump in. He runs a family business in Buncombe County and has proven to be strong campaigner. He won his seat in a district that was supposed to be solid Republican. He’s also been a strong fundraiser and has touch of Everyman to him. He’s got the bearing and gravitas to be a contender, but lacks the base of the Triangle, Charlotte or Triad. To win, he would need to quickly reach beyond Western North Carolina. 

The theory behind McCready is that win or lose in the special election, he’ll already have significant name recognition and an organization ready to go. He brings a strong resume as a green energy entrepreneur, veteran and fundraiser. He can also make the argument that he’s battle-tested. However, while he’s a good fit for the 9th Congressional District, he would have to connect with more liberal voters in the Triangle to get through a contested primary. Still, he’ll be in an interesting position after the election this fall.

Representative Rachel Hunt is even more interesting. Hunt won the closest House race of 2018, stealing a Republican held seat. While it seems a little early for her to be making a move up, she brings a unique asset—a political pedigree like nobody else. Hunt raised a ton of money in her first campaign. She’s smart, personable and a hard worker. She chaired the Lillian’s List board, giving her statewide contacts in addition to those of her father. She’s certainly a rising star who would bring some star power to the race. 

If Schumer is talking to both Cowell and Hunt, he probably wants a woman to take on Tillis. He personally recruited Kay Hagan in 2007, the last Democratic Senator from North Carolina. Erica Smith is in the race but she failed the first test by raising only $21,000 in the first quarter and apparently doesn’t even have a website yet. Mansfield would bring diversity to the ticket but he’s not proven to the committee that he can raise the type of money to be a top-tier candidate. That could change if he has big second quarter report. Otherwise, Jackson, Turner or McCready can all bring the money, but with Roy Cooper running for re-election the ticket wouldn’t reflect the diversity and center of energy within the Democratic Party.   

Democrats no longer need to worry about finding a challenger for Tillis. The Senator seems to know it, too, since he announced his re-election campaign team last week. North Carolina’s Senate race will once again put the state front and center in the 2020 election. 


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