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« NC: Marshall Wins Runoff | Blog Home Page | The Week Ahead: Hectic Week On The Hill »

NC: Dems Target Most Vulnerable Republican

By Kyle Trygstad

In June 2008, North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole was polling near 50 percent and leading Democratic nominee Kay Hagan by double-digits. Democrats had hoped Gov. Mike Easley or another high-profile Democrat would challenge Dole, but none had stepped forward.

Fast forward two years, and the state's 2010 Senate race looks much the same.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall was not the national Democratic Party's favored candidate, but she won Tuesday's runoff convincingly and now is perhaps the party's best chance at defeating a Republican incumbent. Sen. Richard Burr is finishing up his first term in office but continues to hover below 50 percent in general election polling.

Hagan went on to defeat Dole by a significant margin, and Democrats think this year's nominee can be just as successful. Marshall defeated Cal Cunningham by 20 points in the runoff and now has the national party firmly behind her bid against Burr.

Unlike in 2008, however, the national political climate does not favor Democrats, and Marshall will not have a popular presidential candidate above her on the ballot. In fact, after two successful elections for Democrats, Burr is one of just two Republicans -- along with Louisiana's David Vitter -- that Democrats appear to have a reasonable chance of defeating.

Enthusiasm is one reason for the GOP's resurgence in the polls this year. Gallup reported Monday that the nationwide enthusiasm gap is the highest it's ever been for the GOP. Republicans think this could erase the party's voter registration deficit -- in North Carolina, the breakdown is 46 percent Democrat, 32 percent Republican.

Marshall also has a financial disadvantage. Through mid-April, when the last fundraising reports were due, Marshall had less than $200,000 to Burr's nearly $5 million.

Still, independent observers believe Burr could be vulnerable.

"The bottom line is that Burr is far from entrenched in his seat, due in part to a relatively low profile for someone who is already five years into office," said Wake Forest political scientist John Dinan. "At the same time, he is advantaged by what is currently a favorable electoral environment for Republicans."

Dinan notes that Burr's numbers continue to suffer because of the same issues he had a year ago, when polling began to indicate his vulnerability.

"It's not clear that Burr has elevated his profile significantly in the last year," said Dinan. "He has gained more attention as a result of his work and positions on health care legislation. But it remains the case that a sizable percentage of recent poll respondents do not have a firm opinion regarding his re-election, and so that opens the opportunity for Democrats to define him in the course of the 2010 campaign."

The latest survey was released two weeks ago by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm based in North Carolina, and found Burr leading Marshall 46 percent to 39 percent. Marshall performed 4 points better than Cunningham, an Iraq war veteran and former state senator whom the DSCC believed could defeat Burr. But PPP's Tom Jensen believes Democrats ended up with the more electable nominee.

"Marshall is looking considerably more competitive against Richard Burr at this point in the election cycle than Kay Hagan did against Elizabeth Dole two years ago," Jensen wrote Tuesday night following Marshall's victory.

Another difference from 2008, however, is Marshall begins the general election with far less money than Hagan. By the end of June, Hagan had more than $1.2 million in the bank. While Marshall's fundraising report isn't due for another three weeks, matching that total is unlikely after a drawn-out primary process.

Hunter Bacot, polling director at Elon University, says money is going to be a "primary factor."

"Hagan had money and was able to establish the narrative and dictate it," said Bacot. "That's one of the things missing here. She's going to need money to get on the airwaves and try to move the narrative to her favor."

That's where the national party could come into play. The DSCC won't say how much it's planning to spend on the general election race, but it invested heavily in Cunningham during the primary for a reason -- Democrats think they can win.

"Given Richard Burr's anemic poll numbers, his blank slate of accomplishments in North Carolina, and his staunch support for devastating economic policies, there is no doubt he is in trouble," said Deirdre Murphy, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn indicated Tuesday night that Republicans will tie Marshall to unpopular Washington. While Burr is the one who is actually in Washington, the Democrats control it.

"Marshall has demonstrated that she will simply serve as another rubberstamp for President Obama and Harry Reid's deeply unpopular out-of-control spending agenda in Washington, which North Carolinians have soundly rejected," said Cornyn.

Still, Burr is running for a seat that no senator has won re-election to since 1968; he's running in a year when incumbents from both parties are on notice after five were defeated during the primary process; his polling numbers haven't improved in the last year; and he's running in a state that's trended Democratic the last two election cycles, when the percentage of Republican registered voters has decreased.

"Along with the historically narrow margins in North Carolina Senate contests and Kay Hagan's victory over Elizabeth Dole in 2008," said Dinan, "this gives Democrats reason to view this race as potentially competitive."