2020 Election

Cal Cunningham Touted ‘Merits’ of Communism as Student Leader

Cal Cunningham, the former state legislator who defeated a qualified black woman in North Carolina's Democratic Senate primary, touted the "merits" of communist and Marxist ideology as UNC-Chapel Hill student body president in the 1990s.

Cunningham expounded on the virtues of communism and Marxism during an interview with a UNC student newspaper in 1995 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Asked if there was "merit" in communist ideology, Cunningham offered a mostly positive assessment, making the familiar argument that true communism hasn't really been tried.

"There’s very much merit in communist ideology, but you have to be careful how you define it," he said. "I think that in practice, what we saw in the Soviet Union was totalitarianism in action." Cunningham, who claimed to have studied Marxist philosophy "quite thoroughly," went on to say that despite some "fundamental flaws," there were "a lot of things we can still take" from Marxism. Communism, for all it's merits, Cunningham argued, is "something that we have more trouble achieving."

Cunningham is running against incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.) in a race that could determine which party controls the Senate in 2021. What had been a tight race through June has opened up in recent weeks, with Cunningham currently enjoying a 6.2 percentage-point lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average. The $7.4 million Cunningham raised in the second quarter of 2020 was the highest ever reported by a North Carolina Senate candidate.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) has supported Cunningham's candidacy since 2019, helping the former state legislator raise money from New York donors. Schumer made clear early on what kind of Senate candidate he wanted Democrats to nominate in North Carolina: a boring white man who, in Schumer's words, would spend the entire campaign "in a windowless basement raising money" to fund attack ads against Tillis. Cunningham certainly fits the bill.

Cunningham's opponent in the Democratic primary, former Boeing engineer Erica Smith, who is black, accused Schumer and other party leaders of racial bias due to their conduct in the primary. After the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee formally endorsed Cunningham in October 2019, Smith issued an angry press release alleging that party leaders had promised her "unequivocally" that they would not endorse a candidate in the primary. At a campaign event in January, Smith suggested that "Sen. Schumer, for whatever reason, did not want an African American running for Senate in North Carolina."

Smith is not the only black Senate candidate to allege racial bias against the Democratic Party, which has actively intervened in at least three races this cycle on behalf of a white candidate running against a person of color.

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