Brady PAC Backs Cunningham in Divisive North Carolina Senate Primary
Brady PAC, one of the nation’s most prominent gun-control groups, wants to set the record straight about its position in the confusing North Carolina Democratic Senate primary.
The group, which is backing Democratic front-runner Cal Cunningham, this week sent out an urgent fundraising pitch pressing its supporters and donors to pony up for the cause. The move comes after a Republican group with fundraising ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week spent $500,000 on a television ad backing Cunningham’s closest Democratic primary rival, state Sen. Erica Smith, as a way to bolster Smith’s campaign over Cunningham’s in the final days of the race.
“As a father of two, Cal knows the fear that parents experience when they drop their kids off at school and wonder if they will come home safe,” states a Brady PAC email fundraising pitch sent to the group’s list of thousands of supporters late last week. “That’s why he believes in protecting our communities by expanding background checks, banning the sale of high-capacity magazines, passing red-flag laws, and funding gun research.”
But there’s a curious aspect of the push. Cunningham, during his two years in the North Carolina state legislature, earned an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, while Smith, who has spent more than twice as long in the state Senate, earned an F.
“We see [Cunningham] as a winner in North Carolina, and a winner in our movement,” Brian Lemek, Brady PAC’s executive director, explained to RealClearPolitics in an interview. “He served on the Governor’s Crime Commission and his positions have evolved on these issues. He now supports background checks, banning high-capacity magazines, funding gun violence research, and passing red-flag laws.”
Even though Lemek said he has “no doubt” Smith would vote on “our side,” Brady PAC felt compelled to jump in and back Cunningham because control of the U.S. Senate is at stake and sitting GOP Sen. Thom Tillis has an A+ rating with the NRA.
The Brady PAC activity on Cunningham’s behalf also comes with time running out before the March 3 primary and just days after the GOP-tied group Faith and Power PAC tried to boost Smith’s campaign by hitting Cunningham on guns.
“Brady PAC is proud to endorse gun violence prevention champion Cal Cunningham for North Carolina Senate – If he wins, the NRA’s Senate majority is DONE!” the Brady PAC email fundraising pitch claims. “But a Republicans SuperPAC just unleased a scathing attack on Cal. So we need to raise $10,000 to save him!”
Recent polls have repeatedly shown Tillis as one of the most vulnerable senators up for re-election, with nonpartisan political handicappers rating the race a toss-up. In 2014, the junior North Carolina senator squeaked out a win over Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, 48.8% to 47.3%.
Tillis still must get through his own March 3 primary to move on to compete in the general election.
National Democrats, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, have thrown their support to Cunningham, a military veteran who served one term in the state Senate nearly 20 years ago and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Cunningham has raked in cash and national endorsements, while Smith has raised just $275,000 for her race.
Republicans are so concerned about losing the seat that they’ve used Faith and Power PAC to bolster Smith, the more liberal candidate in the Democratic primary, as a way to weaken Cunningham because they believe he has better odds of besting Tillis or Tucker in a general election.
The GOP-backed PAC’s spending on television ads supporting Smith tells us that Republicans are “really nervous about Cal,” Lemek said. “They don’t think Tillis can beat Cal. It’s an ugly tactic, but it demonstrates to us they are running scared and trying to bolster Smith because they’d rather run against her than Cunningham.”
The ad put out by Faith and Power PAC called Smith “the only proven progressive.” It touts Smith’s support for the Green New Deal and "Medicare for All," and then asks who will stand up to the gun lobby. “Not NRA A-rated Cal Cunningham,” it says.
During his two years in the state legislature, Cunningham voted to support a 2002 bill that barred victims of gun violence and their families from suing gun manufacturers. It’s the same type of legislation former Vice President Joe Biden has criticized Bernie Sanders for backing decades ago, before Sanders also reversed course and became a vocal proponent of gun-control measures.
Cunningham's campaign website lists “preventing gun violence” as one of his top priorities.
“Cal believes there are commonsense steps we can take to protect our communities from gun violence while protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens,” it states. “Cal will work to keep our kids safe and to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, criminals, and terrorists by supporting efforts to expand background checks, ban the sale of high-capacity magazines, pass red-flag laws, and fund gun violence research on an issue that has become a public health crisis.”
The website also cites Cunningham’s work on the Governor's Crime Commission creating recommendations to curb the risk of school shootings.
Smith has disavowed the support from Faith and Power PAC, saying she is “outraged by this interference" and calling on it to “cease and desist” its activity on her behalf. But she also is incensed over the Brady PAC’s endorsement of Cunningham, which she views as particularly hypocritical.
“Cunningham only served in the state legislature for two years, 2001 and 2002, and in those two years, he did nothing but block gun-violence prevention bills,” she told RealClearPolitics.
The former high school teacher, minister, and engineer calls the Brady PAC’s Cunningham endorsement a “threat to the mission of the Brady PAC” and says she is proud of her “F” from the NRA.
“He backed legislation that blocked people from suing gun manufacturers,” she told RCP. “We need to back candidates who have a record of supporting gun-violence prevention legislation, not someone who is just pandering to get an endorsement.”
Smith points to four bills she has sponsored that seek to promote background checks and red-flag provisions, which would have allowed courts to issue special protective orders allowing police to temporarily confiscate firearms from people deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others.
One local conservative-leaning group, Grass Roots North Carolina, which is dedicated to “defending the individual right to keep and bear arms,” gave Smith a 100% rating in 2016. That year, Smith voted for a bill that allowed concealed-carry permit holders to keep weapons in locked cars, even if they were on school property, and limited local jurisdictions’ ability to create their own ordinances. Smith has explained that the vote was based on an incident involving the death of a community college faculty member and the support from county commissioners in her rural northeastern North Carolina district.
Smith also acknowledges supporting a “hunting heritage” measure backed by the NRA. She said she did so because many of her constituents are longtime hunters and hunting ecotourism brings in $300,000 a year to the area.
“People try to make this an either/or, but it’s a both,” she said. “We can have hunting heritage where it’s important and we can support gun-control measures to prevent violence that is totally avoidable.”
Smith cited studies showing that the number of mass shooting deaths dropped precipitously during the 10 years the federal assault weapons ban was in effect and increased after it lapsed in 2004.
In 2020, Smith and Cunningham received zero stars from Grass Roots North Carolina while Tillis received a two-star rating out of four and no endorsement.
The decision by Brady PAC to endorse Cunningham follows similar support from other national groups — all of whom Smith says did so without vetting her record.
“Cal Cunningham, when he was in the state Senate, never filed a bill to prevent gun violence, and we have filed a bill every legislative session,” she said. “But they have decided they are going to back him, mission be damned. We look forward to them endorsing us after the primary.”
“We are going to win this,” she added.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Garland Tucker is challenging Tillis in the Republican primary. Tucker is no longer running.