Former state senator and veteran Cal Cunningham announced he’s switching races today. Cunningham says he’s moving from the lieutenant governor’s race to the US Senate race, in part, because he’s heard the request on the campaign trail. As incumbent Republican Thom Tillis looks increasingly vulnerable, Democrats have not landed what they consider a top-tier challenger. Cunningham hopes to fill that slot. 

Democratic state Senator Erica Smith from northeastern North Carolina announced she was running for the seat in January and had a campaign kickoff on June but only raised about $21,000 in the first quarter. Trevor Fuller, a county commissioner from Mecklenburg County, announced he was running in January also and raised only $24,000 in the first quarter. Former state Senator Eric Mansfield announced he was launching an exploratory committee but has not filed a finance report. 

In addition to those three, former state Treasurer Richard Moore says he’s been approached by the DSCC about running. He hasn’t made up his mind but could self-fund if he decided to jump into the race. Moore ran for governor in 2008 but lost the primary to Beverly Perdue. 

Democrats are looking for candidates to bank big dollars for what could be one of the most expensive Senate contests in the country. When Deborah Ross filed in her 2016 race against Burr, she had more than $500,000. Cunningham had already raised more than $300,000 for his lieutenant governor’s race by December of last year, though that money can’t be transferred to his federal account. 

Cunningham ran for US Senate but lost the primary to Secretary of State Elaine Marshall in 2010. He’s stayed involved in politics and is well-known among activists and donors across the state. He’s also a favorite among veterans’ groups, having served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He currently serves on Gov. Roy Cooper’s crime commission. 

Cunningham has the advantage of experience in Senate contests, reducing his learning curve substantially. A senate race is unlike any other on the ballot. It requires running several campaigns at once and is both nationalized and localized, particularly in the primary.

To prevent a highly competitive primary, Cunningham will first need to quickly lock down the donor class in North Carolina to cut off money to potential challengers. He’ll also need to convince national donors that he should be on their radar.  Backing from the DSCC can help but it’s a double-edged sword. Activists resent the Washington establishment taking sides in primaries, opening the door to an anti-establishment candidate who can tap into the low-dollar donors who make up the difference. 

He’ll also need to convince an inherently skeptical Washington press that he’s the candidate who can put together the resources and run the campaign that can unseat a sitting US Senator. They will be swayed mostly by his ability to raise money. Nationally, the June 30 report will have more impact on his campaign than anything that’s happening today. 

Cunningham will also need to engage the activists who can supply both manpower and low-dollar contributions. When he ran in 2010, Cunningham had a strong following among younger voters, especially those online. Unfortunately, not many turned out. If 2018 is any indication, that’s changed and if he can tap into those younger voters again, he’ll have a solid base of support heading into the March primary. 

Finally, he’ll need to be able to persuade the voters who tune in late and are driven to the polls by the presidential primary that he’s the one who can flip a US Senate seat for the Democrats. In a state where more than 1.5 million people are likely to vote in the primary, he’ll need a substantial war chest to reach them. That’s why he needs that donor class now. 

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