Upstart Democrat Elaine Marshall is polling well against incumbent Richard Burr in the race for North Carolina’s Senate seat. Benjamin Sarlin talks to Marshall about her populist message—and whether she’ll let Obama campaign for her. Plus, read The Daily Beast manifesto for a government stimulus and tax cuts for jobs, signed by dozens of economists and historians. Read the complete list of manifesto backers.
Democrats braced for a rough election season this fall may find some consolation in North Carolina, where signs point to a potential upset in the works.
The Democratic candidate, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, has been quietly surging in the polls against Republican incumbent Richard Burr since winning her party’s nomination in June. An internal survey by Marshall’s campaign showing her with a 37%-35% lead over Burr raised eyebrows last month, but similar results from Public Policy Polling last week, which recorded a 39%-37% lead for Burr, suggest it might not be a fluke. The latest Rasmussen survey gave Burr a stronger lead— 49%-40%—but prompted the polling outfit to downgrade the state from “solid” to “lean” Republican. With Burr’s approval rating consistently polling in the 30s, there may be an opening for Marshall to make her case.
“I’d love to have Obama in here,” she said. “Anytime he comes into the state and can see what’s going on, North Carolina is better for it.”
What’s particularly striking about Marshall’s campaign is that she is offering an unabashed embrace of much of President Obama’s agenda—and calling for more federal stimulus spending—at a time when many Democrats are running away from the White House as fast as they can.
Marshall was coy about whether she’d welcome Obama’s personal help on the campaign trail in an appearance on the Bill Press Show last week. But in an interview with The Daily Beast, Marshall dispelled any doubts.
“I’d love to have Obama in here,” she said. “Anytime he comes into the state and can see what’s going on, North Carolina is better for it. He needs to get out to listen to people, to see how their lives work or don’t work, he needs to also see the good things we have here in North Carolina with our higher education, our research in the bioscience and tech areas, green projects that we're working on. If we can get the president to more of those, it will put a focus on who we are as a people and what we're about and maybe erase some of these stereotypes about the South at the same time.”
But would she be comfortable with him campaigning on her behalf? “Sure,” she replied.
Marshall’s defiantly progressive platform has caught the attention of the Netroots in particular, providing fertile ground for activists hoping to show that an aggressive offense can overcome Republican attacks on “big-government”—even in conservative-leaning states. Her primary campaign against Iraq vet Cal Cunningham, who had the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, drew support from such liberal grassroots giants as MoveOn.org, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Democracy For America. Marshall’s anti-war stance and her support for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act were especially helpful in generating enthusiasm among those grassroots groups.
Marshall told The Daily Beast she did not see “reasonable circumstances” under which the U.S. could prevail in Afghanistan.
“We have a heavy investment there now, and if there’s a country we need to rebuild, it needs to be America,” she said. Nonetheless, she said she was upset by the recent release of thousands of Afghan war documents by WikiLeaks.
“They’re not beneficial to our folks on the ground, they’re not beneficial to our intelligence efforts,” she said of the disclosure. “It appeared to me to be a lower-level individual at the center of it and that, to me, is very problematic for our security … if laws are broken we need to go ahead and prosecute.”
Marshall’s economic plan is as straightforwardly populist as it gets: Take money directly from Wall Street, in the form of a $150 billion a year financial transaction tax, and use it to pay for improvements in infrastructure, education, and renewable energy. It’s essentially a second stimulus plan, funded by the banks.
“It’s all about jobs,” Marshall said. “That’s what’s important to the workers of North Carolina and that’s the ultimate goal. The Wall Street folks got us into this mess and calling upon them to get us out of this mess is not inappropriate.”
While legislation along those lines is, to put it mildly, unlikely given Republican opposition to additional stimulus, Marshall is using the plan as a rallying cry. Picking up on the jobs theme, she’s hitting Burr hard over his opposition to Democrats’ proposal to spend $30 billion subsidizing loans to small businesses. She’s also called for reforming the filibuster to help Democrats’ overcome the GOP’s frequent obstructionist tactics.
While Marshall’s message has national progressives excited, they’re going to have to put their money where their mouth is for her to run a competitive race. Her war chest was depleted by the primary, and Burr currently enjoys a major cash advantage of about $6.3 million versus less than $200,000 for Marshall. Making matters more difficult, the DSCC’s cash is spread widely this year, and her candidacy could struggle to draw their attention as they look to protect longtime incumbents and defend open seats. In 2008, Kay Hagan unseated Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole in a major upset, thanks in part to millions of dollars worth of DSCC-funded ads. Hagan also had the advantage of Obama’s presence on the ticket, which boosted the African-American vote and helped bolster attacks against the unpopular GOP.
“Most challengers don’t have as much money as a sitting incumbent,” Marshall said, “We’ll be in the same boat but we’ll have enough money and run a competitive campaign.”
Andy Taylor, political science chair at North Carolina State University, told The Daily Beast he was “surprised” by Marshall’s success in the polls and suggested that Burr’s quiet reputation and lack of high-profile achievements “provides opportunities.” Nonetheless, he believes that Marshall is unlikely to win without strong support from national Democrats.
“She may have a chance to define him if she gets some money,” Taylor said. “But it’s going to be very difficult for her, I think.”
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.