N.Y. Donations in N.C. Primary Fuel Charges of Meddling

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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is facing some of the same problems as the national Democratic Party, which is trying to bridge the ideological split between Joe Biden and the more liberal top contenders for the presidential nomination, namely Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris. 

Schumer desperately wants Democrats to win control of the Senate in 2020, a victory that would hand them a majority in both chambers of Congress and vault him into the top Senate leadership post. But he and other national party figures have to decide whether to throw their weight – and their fundraising power -- behind progressive candidates or more centrist ones who might face an easier path to victory in the general election, especially in critical swing states.

At least so far, the national party seems to be striking a better balance than Schumer and the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.

Earlier this week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s decision to officially back John Hickenlooper -- just after the former Colorado governor bowed out of the presidential contest -- set of off a testy intra-party clash that will likely continue for months as voters decide who will be the nominee to challenge Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.

In North Carolina, where GOP Sen. Tom Tillis’s approval rating has nose-dived to 33%, the lowest of any incumbent, Democrats believe they have one of their best chances to flip a seat and are on high alert for national party meddling.

Progressive state Sen. Erica Smith, a former Boeing engineer, high school science teacher and ordained minister from Fayetteville, is leading Tillis by seven percentage points with 15% of voters undecided, according to a June poll by Emerson College.

Smith, a three-term state senator, had a good shot at becoming the state’s first black U.S. senator before former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, an attorney and veteran, entered the race and quickly attracted prominent Democratic endorsements. (Trevor Fuller, a former county commissioner, and Eva Lee, a tax attorney, also are running.)

Progressives in the state immediately cried foul and pointed to Cunningham’s absence in some of most liberal policy debates, pointing out that he has not held office for 17 years.

Smith’s platform is far more firmly defined: It makes universal health care, social justice issues and gun control top priorities. Cunningham (pictured) has recently said he supports universal background checks and red flag laws, but his detractors point out that he has a history of NRA support, receiving an “A” rating from the powerful gun rights group in 2000 and supporting an NRA-backed bill that made it harder to sue firearms manufacturers in 2002.

The DSCC insists it’s not choosing sides in the race, but Cunningham was a previous DSCC pick in 2010 when he lost in a primary run-off. And his support from the national party that year was a factor in his loss. His primary opponent, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, repeatedly raised the issue.

“North Carolina Democrats do not appreciate Washington trying to handpick or anoint their candidate,” Marshall argued at one point in the campaign. She lost in the general election to the GOP’s Richard Burr.

Now, just 2½ months into Cunningham’s 2020 Senate bid, state Democrats are pointing to signs that he is benefiting from national support despite the DSCC claims of abstaining from the primary.

During the second fundraising quarter, just before he entered the contest, Cunningham received $152,000 from New York donors -- nearly 35% of his itemized contributions for that period, according to federal election records.

Every one of those 55 donations were made during the last week of the quarter and 51 donors maxed out their contributions of $2,800 to Cunningham. All but two of them have donated to Schumer, ponying up a total of $675,000 to him over the course of his political career, the records show.

None of the donors had given to Cunningham during his failed 2010 Senate campaign, fueling talk that a promise of financial help from national Democrats may have helped sway the candidate to switch gears and jump into the Senate race after spending the first part of the year running for lieutenant governor. Cunningham also has put $200,000 of his own money into his race.

After he entered the Senate field, Smith expressed concern about national party meddling. After the latest fundraising reports, she’s convinced it is.

“The special interest groups and big, wealthy donors out of New York are trying to buy this Senate seat, and it’s just shameful and it is embarrassing,” she told RealClearPolitics. “I just worry about the people I serve in North Carolina. We don’t have the same demographics as New York, and this Senate seat is not for sale.”

By comparison, Smith has raised less than $100,000 in individual contributions.

“I am unbought and unbossed,” she said, quoting former Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. “I am not for sale. New York is not going to get another vote in the Senate. That is not fair to the people of North Carolina.”

The Cunningham campaign stressed that more than 70% of their donors last quarter were from North Carolina and pointed to the endorsement of dozens of leaders from across the state, including local officials, party leaders, community advocates and former Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, whom Tillis defeated in 2014.

“It's no surprise that donors who have given to other Democratic Senate candidates in the past would also support Cal, given the strength of his campaign to take on Senator Thom Tillis and how important this race is for 2020,” a campaign spokesman told RCP.

The spokesman did not respond to an RCP question about whether Schumer was involved in channeling the donations to Cunningham or directly recruiting him to enter the race.

A Schumer spokesman referred Cunningham questions to the DSCC. The DSCC said it could not discuss details about the Cunningham donations because it is not taking sides in the primary.

A review of Federal Election Commission donation records shows most of the Cunningham donors also gave to a variety of Senate Democrats or Democratic candidates in past election cycles, and several showed multiple donations to other Democratic Senate candidates this year as well.

But most of the donors also had made significant contributions to the DSCC or the Schumer-allied Senate Majority PAC (SMP). In fact, Barry Gosin, a New York real-estate titan, and his wife, Jackie, donated a combined $300,000 to SMP this year, records show. Besides that windfall, the couple’s only other donations so far this year are to Cunningham’s campaign and Biden’s presidential run.

Smith argues that the New York donations create an allegiance problem for her opponent.

“If he is elected to represent the interests of North Carolina, so what happens when he has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from NY and a vote comes up where North Carolina and New York interests diverge? Who does he represent?” Smith asked. “I’ve been in professional politics for a long time, and donors don’t write big checks without expecting something in return.”

Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee earlier this month targeted Smith, posting a billboard in Raleigh featuring her pictured alongside self-declared socialist Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. The signs declares her as “too liberal” for North Carolina.

Smith took billboard as a compliment, arguing that it shows that the NRSC is seriously worried about her candidacy.

“I am the only candidate who they are spending money against – it shows you who @TomTillis is worried about,” she tweeted. “Can’t attack @CalforNC because nobody knows what he stands for.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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