NC Senate: Will Marshall’s Senate Campaign Equal Her Recent P.R. Campaign?

December 7, 2009 · 8:00 AM EST

Over the past few weeks, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D), who is challenging Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), has been on a public relations offensive.

First, there was a Lake Research Partners memo on incumbent Burr’s standing with state voters. Then there was a “Senate Primary Analysis” from Thomas Mills, who runs a North Carolina-based communications firm and works for Marshall, arguing that “in all likelihood, she will be the Democratic nominee.”

That was followed four days later by a memo from Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen reporting on the firm’s Nov. 23-24 poll showing that Marshall “is in a very strong position to win the Democratic nomination for the US Senate from North Carolina next year.” (PPP is a Democratic polling firm that isn’t working for Marshall.)

All of the hype about Marshall’s prospects coincided with a series of announcements by other Democrats opting out of next year’s Senate contest.

First, attorney Cal Cunningham, a former state Senator and Iraq War veteran, announced that he wouldn’t run, and then Rep. Bob Etheridge, who has been flirting with the race for months, announced that he, too, would take a pass.

For the moment, that has left attorney Ken Lewis and Marshall in the race for the Democratic nomination. But Democratic insiders predict that at least one other significant candidate will enter the Democratic contest — it now appears that Cunningham will reverse course and jump in — and that could affect Marshall’s prospects considerably.

Candidates, of course, are free to tell their story as they see it. But leaving obvious holes because all of the facts don’t fit the narrative cries out for someone to fill them.

The Mills memo emphasizes that Marshall has been elected secretary of state four times and “is very popular among Democratic activists, particularly women.” It also notes that women “do well” in Democratic primaries, pointing out that “four women running for statewide office in 2008” in North Carolina all won their primaries.

Even if that’s true, it leaves out something pretty important: Marshall already lost a Senate primary in 2002. She finished third, behind Erskine Bowles and state legislator Dan Blue, drawing only 15 percent.

There is nothing wrong with losing a primary, but if you are going to argue that “women do well” in North Carolina Democratic primaries — even citing the percentages of women who make up the Democratic electorate — you are opening yourself up to criticism. Maybe Mills should have said that “women often do well, though Elaine Marshall sometimes hasn’t.”

Jensen’s analysis notes that Marshall “starts out in a considerably better place than Senator Kay Hagan did” two years before her primary win. He then observes that PPP polling shows Marshall winning 42 percent to 7 percent for Lewis and 5 percent for Cunningham.

Of course, Marshall performs better now than Hagan did two years before her eventual election. Hagan was a state Senator then, while Marshall has been elected statewide four times and run statewide five times. And of course Marshall leads Lewis and Cunningham now, given the name-recognition disparities.

It isn’t until far down the memo that Jensen notes Marshall’s higher name ID and statewide experience. Obviously, Marshall’s name recognition isn’t irrelevant. It’s a reality that does give her an initial advantage in a primary. But it also explains all her strong numbers relative to Hagan and to other Democrats tested.

Finally, the Lake Research Partners memo is noteworthy because it comes from Marshall’s polling firm but merely regurgitates existing public polls of the race. It’s also extremely selective in choosing polls and poll data to use.

Both the PPP and Lake Research Partners memos assert that Burr is vulnerable. DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz said the same thing on Tuesday. Maybe Burr is, but he isn’t likely to lose. And while it’s too early to assert that Marshall can’t beat him, she would be a considerable underdog against him.

Democrats have carried the state in only two of the past 10 presidential contests, and in three of the past 10 Senate races. Yes, they won both in 2008, but the outcomes were close (Barack Obama won with 49.7 percent and Hagan with 52.7 percent) in the worst year for Republicans since Watergate.

While demographic changes may help Democrats over the next decade or two, the state still leans Republican for federal office in a neutral political environment. Since 2010 will be at least neutral — and more likely favoring the GOP — any Democrat will have a hard time ousting Burr.

Marshall, in particular, would have some problems.

While Mills’ memo points out that “in 2008, she amassed the second highest vote total in North Carolina history,” that statewide success is likely misleading.

I remember then-South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) telling me during her 2004 Senate race against then-Rep. Jim DeMint (R) that she was the biggest vote-getter in competitive statewide contests two years earlier (winning with 59 percent), which allegedly demonstrated her appeal.

I never bought that for a minute, because running for a federal office, with its highly charged ideological issues and inevitable partisan perspective, is very different from running for a downballot, uncontroversial statewide office. If you have any doubt about that, ask Tenenbaum, who drew just 44 percent against DeMint.