Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) was perfectly clear about the kind of candidate he wanted North Carolina Democrats to nominate to face incumbent senator Thom Tillis (R.) in 2020.
Last year, when state senator Jeff Jackson—a relatively young, white, male veteran—was being courted to enter the race, Schumer reportedly laid out his vision for a winning campaign strategy. After rejecting Jackson's suggestion of holding town halls to interact with voters, Schumer said he wanted the Democratic nominee to "spend the next 16 months in a windowless basement raising money, and then we're going to spend 80 percent of it on negative ads about Tillis."
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Though Jackson ultimately passed on the race, Schumer found a willing candidate in Cal Cunningham—a relatively young, white, male veteran who might be the most boring political figure of the 2020 cycle. But that's exactly what Democrats are looking for in a presidential election year in which the party's central campaign message amounts to little more than "Not Trump."
Schumer and Democratic Party leaders certainly have a thing for Cunningham. Perhaps because he's a boring white man, or because they see him as the most amenable to doing what he's told. For the most part, Cunningham has followed Schumer's orders, while outside groups spend millions on ads attacking his opponent. Majority Forward, a Democrat-aligned PAC, on Tuesday launched a seven-figure ad campaign criticizing Tillis's record on health care.
Cunningham has even received help from the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump PAC founded by failed Republican strategists. The group released a 30-second television spot in May accusing Tillis of being too loyal to the president, a primary theme of Cunningham's campaign.
The North Carolina Senate race has already been the target of nearly $14 million in outside spending, more than any other statewide campaign this cycle. Leading super PACs are expected to spend nearly $50 million in the state, which will be crucial to the Democratic Party's efforts to promote Chuck Schumer to Senate majority leader.
While the coronavirus pandemic has shielded Cunningham from criticism he might otherwise receive for staying put in his basement, the candidate has been doing just enough to keep his name in the news via livestreams and the occasional local news interview. Not that he was particularly eager to take a firm position on hot-button issues before coronavirus.
Cunningham declined, for example, to take a firm position on impeachment back in December 2019, saying only that "we ought to be very deeply troubled" by President Trump's "deeply, deeply troubling" actions, adding that "the facts are pretty deeply troublesome."
Schumer started backing Cunningham before the former one-term state senator even announced his campaign for the Democratic nomination. The Senate minority leader helped Cunningham raise more than $150,000 from New York-based donors before entering the race, a clear indication Cunningham would be the Democratic establishment's preferred candidate.
Schumer's not-so-subtle preference for Cunningham became a source of controversy in the Democratic primary. For some, it was an indication that the Democratic Party's commitment to racial and gender diversity extends only so far. Also seeking the nomination was state senator Erica Smith, a former Boeing engineer attempting to become just the third African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Smith was not pleased with the way Schumer and Democratic Party officials conducted themselves in the primary. When the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) formally endorsed Cunningham in October 2019, Smith was livid, alleging in a statement that DSCC executives had told her "unequivocally, that they were not, had not, did not intend to endorse in the primary."
Smith, who announced her candidacy before Cunningham and had been leading Tillis in statewide polling, accused Democratic officials of putting "their thumb on the scale of our democracy" and robbing North Carolina voters of the chance to make their own decisions. She even suggested that her race was a factor in Schumer's decision to embrace Cunningham.
"Sen. Schumer, for whatever reason, did not want an African American running for Senate in North Carolina," Smith said during a campaign event in January. She added that Democrats deserved a candidate who wouldn't be "beholden to Chuck Schumer and New York millionaires and billionaires." Smith ultimately lost to Cunningham by more than 20 points when votes were cast in early March.
It wasn't the first time the DSCC had intervened on Cunningham's behalf during a Senate primary against a female opponent. The Democratic campaign apparatus formally endorsed him in 2010, but Cunningham ended up losing to North Carolina secretary of state Elaine Marshall in a run-off. Marshall, who went on to lose to incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.), had also complained that "North Carolina Democrats do not appreciate Washington trying to handpick or anoint their candidate."
And the North Carolina race isn't the only one in which the DSCC has been accused of trying to undermine qualified black candidates. A group representing thousands of black Democrats in Texas recently accused party leaders of trying to "cheat" state senator Royce West of a chance to become the state's first African-American U.S. senator.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats alleges that the DSCC, which has already endorsed West's white opponent, has been contacting donors in the state and urging them not to give money to West's campaign.
"It's the same basic problem we have broadly speaking in America—whenever African-Americans have an opportunity to advance, they get undercut," said Carroll Robinson, the group's chairman. "And it's sad that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is doing it, and I wish they would stop."