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A Democratic Schism In North Carolina

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recently passed on to reporters the advice he gives to candidates in primaries -- save your negative campaigning for the general election. Just one day into what could be a tough primary race in North Carolina, that rule was already broken.

Democrats officially got their man Monday when former North Carolina state senator Cal Cunningham announced he will indeed challenge Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) next year. About a month ago, Cunningham opted against a bid despite the encouragement of the national party, but Rep. Bob Etheridge's (D-N.C.) subsequent decision not to run propelled Cunningham back into the race.

Already running was Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who has been elected statewide four times, and attorney Kenneth Lewis. Much to the chagrin of Marshall's campaign, the DSCC was unimpressed with her and continued to recruit candidates it felt had the best chance of upending Burr and continuing the seat's perpetual turnover streak --no one has won re-election to the seat since the early 1970s.

Shortly after Cunningham's announcement Monday, the DSCC released a statement on the race that criticized Burr and touted Cunningham's resume, but made no mention of Marshall or Lewis.

"Richard Burr remains one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the United States Senate. ... [I]t has become clear that Richard Burr is beholden to the special interests in Washington," said DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz. "In contrast, Cal Cunningham served with distinction in Iraq; has a record of cracking down on waste, fraud and abuse; and is already building an exciting grassroots coalition on the ground in North Carolina."

Schultz added that "Burr's ongoing obstruction of health care reform is the latest reason why he's going to have a real race next November."

While it has not officially endorsed Cunningham, the DSCC's snub of Marshall led the campaign to release a statement Monday that was critical of Cunningham's ties to the national party, as well as his refusal to join the race until he was assured of the DSCC's backing.

"He's kind of the hokey pokey candidate -- he's in one minute and out the next. He's in the race because Washington wants to choose who North Carolina's nominee is going to be," said Thomas Mills, a Marshall consultant. "Cal Cunningham apparently is scared of a primary or he would have gotten in earlier. The only way he got in was with the support of the Washington power brokers."

Intraparty battles aren't just a Democratic worry in 2010. The Republican Party is facing similar situations in a few states where national leadership has given preferential treatment to certain candidates -- often the more moderate candidate, whom the party thinks has a better chance to win statewide.

In Florida, the National Republican Senatorial Committee quickly endorsed Gov. Charlie Crist despite the presence of conservative Marco Rubio in the race. Conservatives have also been up in arms over the assistance Carly Fiorina has received in her Senate bid in California, where Chuck DeVore is running as well. Both Rubio and DeVore have centered campaign attacks on their establishment-backed primary opponents, something Menendez had hoped to avoid in North Carolina, as well as other states like Pennsylvania, Colorado and Ohio, where more than one Democrat is running.

"Obviously we always prefer not to see primaries because we want to focus on the general election," Menendez told reporters during an off-camera briefing in late September. "My one admonition, generically, to all who may be in a race in a primary is that there is plenty to talk about on the Republican side. Focus on your assets and on the target; don't focus on each other.

"To the extent that people play out of bounds, we may get engaged and be referee and say, 'Hey, this is not useful, not helpful, inconsequential.' But so far, so good."

That was more than two months ago, and things may not be all good anymore. The DSCC's involvement in the race and last week's leak of Cunningham's imminent entrance happening on the same day as Marshall's husband's funeral has caused some anger in North Carolina Democratic circles.

Reached for further comment Tuesday, Mills told RealClearPolitics he does not anticipate "this being an especially nasty campaign" for the Democratic nomination.

"That being said I think that primaries should be determined by people who live in their state, and candidates should not be chosen -- I don't believe in coronations," said Mills. "We look forward to working with national Democrats when Elaine Marshall is the Democratic nominee in North Carolina."

For its part, the state party is staying completely neutral in the three-candidate race as it focuses its efforts on defeating Burr, and Chairman David Young is downplaying the role of the DSCC in the race.

"Now it's show me the money time -- it's about who can raise the money, who can generate the enthusiasm," Young told RCP. "I really believe if one of those three candidates starts showing big fundraising reports, that will be the chosen one."