If U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham is heading to the top of the primary mountain in a climate-controlled gondola, then Erica Smith, his main competitor for the Democratic nomination, is trudging to the summit, through a thicket, with one of those large walking sticks.
"Look – if she got into this race with money she would be the odds-on favorite," said Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant who is not working for any of the candidates in this race. "Erica Smith has a great profile, but I don’t think she played her cards very well."
Five Democrats are vying for the nomination and a general election match-up with Republican incumbent Thom Tillis. The primary field includes Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller, Steve Swenson, a nurse from Harnett County, and Atul Goel, a physician, veteran, and naturalized citizen.
Smith and Cunningham, however, are widely acknowledged as the frontrunners.
Cunningham is a military veteran, served one term in the state senate nearly 20 years ago, and made an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2010. Now he’s got the backing of the influential Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a vault full of resources.
Smith is a sitting African American state senator in her third term. She’s trying to advance on a shoestring budget, despite having launched her U.S. senate campaign more than a year ago.
"If you’re going to jump in a race that early the whole reason to do it is to show you’ve got the money, and the connections, and the organization to clear the field," Mills said.
During the first quarter of 2019, campaign donations did not arrive in Smith’s coffers. The money didn’t pour in during the next three months either. Without the funds, a formidable campaign infrastructure didn’t materialize.
Cunningham had been running for lieutenant governor but saw an opportunity. He has since raised millions for his senate campaign, and been boosted by millions more in outside support.
"It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that turnout is what drives elections," said Davidson College political science professor Susan Roberts. "With the money you buy the ads that generate name recognition, and with name recognition you turn out."
Smith needs money, and fast, Davidson said.
Of the 35 U.S. Senate Races in the country this year, North Carolina’s is expected to be one of the tightest and most expensive.
"I am in the lead," said Smith, inside of her Raleigh campaign headquarters last month.
She attributes that claim to some of the polling for this race – polls that show her beating the incumbent Tillis by a wider margin than Cunningham in a general election. However, several other, more recent, polls show Cunningham comfortably ahead of her in the primary.
"We were going to get t-shirts that say 'they have money, we have people,'" Smith said. She believes she’s positioned to do well with black and millennial voters.
Cunningham, meanwhile, rails against the 2017 federal tax cuts for disproportionately benefiting the wealthy. He supports expanding the earned income tax credit in an effort to help lower income earners. And he contends money is the prime culprit for the people having a diminished voice.
"Why is it that we would pass tax cuts that would benefit the narrow few? Because the narrow few are paying for the elections," he said.
Cunningham supports an amendment to the U.S. constitution to reverse Citizens United. That’s the landmark case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court ten years ago that opened the doors to unlimited independent spending in elections. The irony, of course, is that Cunningham is propped up in part by the dark money he would like to do away with.
That dark money is on top of what he’s raised. Presently, he has about 18 times the amount of cash Smith has. And his campaign is using some of it on TV and web ads.
In recent days Smith has made her first appearance on local airwaves, thanks to an ad paid for by the recently formed Faith and Power PAC – a political action committee with Republican ties. It appears the group is hoping to bolster her efforts and force Cunningham to spend more of his war chest in the final weeks of this primary race.