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After Losing To Cal Cunningham Last Year, NC's Erica Smith Is Running For Senate Again

Steve Harrison / WFAE
Erica Smith campaigned in Gastonia Sunday.

In her bid for U.S. Senate, Erica Smith came to Gastonia Sunday as part of her 100-county tour of North Carolina. She pulled up to Erwin Park in her Toyota Highlander, which had some dents on the side and a blue plastic bag covering a missing taillight.

It is not the campaign vehicle of someone who is the favored candidate of Washington.

“You are absolutely right,” said Smith, laughing. “It’s my personal vehicle and I always laugh because when I think about growing up in poverty — watching my parents struggle to hold on to the family farm — I know the value of a dollar.”

In March 2020, Smith lost the Democratic U.S. Senate primary to Cal Cunningham, who got 57% of the vote.

Smith believes she might have won the primary had groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee not endorsed Cunningham months before the March 2020 primary. Other strategists believe Cunningham would have won regardless. Cunningham went on to lose the general election to incumbent Republican Thom Tillis.

Smith said Cunningham’s ultimate failure in the general election shows that Washington Democrats should stay neutral.

“We look at the races across the nation — not just in North Carolina — but we see what happened in Texas with M.J. Hegar,” Smith said. "We saw what happened with Amy McGrath in Kentucky over Charles Booker.”

She was referring to Democratic Senate candidates who won their primaries in 2020 with support from Washington but lost in the general election.

“And so I am hopeful that this time around we have learned from our mistakes, but it doesn’t seem like we have,” Smith said. “There is a candidate (in the North Carolina Senate race) that is well-sourced by D.C., that was recruited by D.C. Instead of allowing the people of North Carolina to decide who they want to represent them.”

The DSCC has not endorsed anyone yet, but former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is racking up endorsements from groups like Emily’s List and politicians like Charlotte U.S. Rep. Alma Adams and U.S. Sen. Kristin Gillibrand of New York.

Both Smith and Beasley are trying to become the first African American senator from North Carolina and only the third Black woman in Senate history. Mecklenburg County state Sen. Jeff Jackson is also running. He’s drawn sizeable crowds on his own 100-county tour and got an early start on fundraising after entering the race in January.

Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton and Richard Watkins of Durham are also in the Democratic primary. Tobias LaGrone, Ava Jackson and Keith Davenport have also declared bids.

[RELATED: Here Are The Candidates Running For U.S. Senate In North Carolina In 2022]

Smith said she’s different from Jackson and Beasley.

“I am the true and only progressive in this race,” Smith said.

And while Beasley’s website does not list her platform, Smith's website does. She freely talks about what she wants to do with no moderation.

She’s for "Medicare for All,". the Green New Deal, canceling student loan debt — and she's for reparations.

“I support reparations,” Smith said. “I support that opportunity for African American descendants of slavery to be compensated. This nation was built on our backs.”

On Sunday in Gastonia, Smith spoke before a dozen people at a pavilion in Erwin Park. She talked about what she called “extreme income inequality” that became larger during the pandemic.

But if fundraising is any indication, Smith will have challenges in getting that message through.

Her campaign says she raised $110,000 for this reporting period. Jackson raised $700,000. Beasley brought in $1.28 million.

Democratic political consultant Thomas Mills, who isn’t working for a candidate in the race, said Smith has come to the 2020 and 2022 Senate runs without a large enough network of friends and donors.

“You know, at some point that becomes on her,” Mills said. “Because the network they bring is generally a reflection of their experience and their work.”

Smith was a three-term state senator from a rural district in the northeast part of the state from 2015 to 2021. She also worked as an engineer for Boeing.

But Mills said that’s not enough.

“Kay Hagan (in 2008) came out of the N.C. Senate to win a U.S. Senate race but she had been the chair of (the Appropriations Committee)," Mills said., "She had a network that was deep."

Smith said she’s visited 27 of the state’s 100 counties. Her next stops: Stokes, Yadkin and Caswell counties.

Next week WFAE will have a look at Jackson’s bid for U.S. Senate.

Copyright WFAE 2021.  For more go to WFAE.org