Today marks the beginning of primary season. While I’m sure more will emerge in coming weeks, Cal Cunningham’s announcement today that he’s running for lieutenant governor sets up a challenge to Democratic state senator Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe County. Let the races begin.

Cunningham ran for US Senate in 2010 and served a term in the state senate in the early 2000s. He’s a lawyer and veteran who served in Iraq and has built a successful waste management business. He’s also plugged into national Democratic circles and has deep ties in North Carolina, serving on numerous boards and commissions. He’s got a following that has been urging him to run for something since he lost the primary in 2010. 

Cunningham brings some assets to the race. He’s a strong speaker with good retail political skills. He’s also got contacts in the fundraising world and showed in his US Senate primary that he can raise money. Originally from Lexington, he’s also got ties to small town North Carolina and understands the rural parts of the state that still play a role in Democratic primaries. 

Cunningham will face a tough fight for the nomination, though. The world of politics has changed dramatically in both the state and nation since he was last in the arena. There’s a much smaller pool of swing voters and far fewer conservative Democrats. Politics today is more about motivating the base and appealing to those voters. 

Women and minorities are ascendant in Democratic politics. In a primary in North Carolina, women will make up about 60% of the voters and African-Americans will make up around 40%. For the past few cycles, both groups have been voting as blocks. To win in the March primary, Cunningham probably needs another credible woman to jump into the fray. 

If Cunningham survives a primary, he’ll make a strong general election candidate. However, March is everything and he faces a well-heeled opponent with access to money. Van Duyn has built a large favor bank by helping legislative candidates raise money, particularly in the west. She’s been seen as a rising star in Democratic circles for her smarts, personality and fundraising prowess.  For Cunningham to beat her, he’ll need a lot of stars to align. 

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