Interference in the Democratic primary by a shady GOP-linked PAC has drowned out debate on important issues in the US Senate race.

Revelations in early February about a shadowy, Republican-connected political action committee flooding the airwaves with ads supporting Democrat Erica Smith’s campaign for US Senate have understandably stoked indignation among Democratic voters angry about GOP operatives trying to pick their winner.

The counteracting media coverage of the ad buy has tended to favor Cal Cunningham — Smith’s opponent in the Democratic primary — with Western Carolina University Professor Chris Cooper telling WLOS News 13 the Republican operatives are “trying to monkey with the Democratic primary a little and beef up the candidate they prefer to face” and an opinion piece in Public Policy Watch arguing “the right-wing money dump” is designed to undermine the candidate “many view as an especially formidable potential opponent for Republican Thom Tillis in November.”

But Republican meddling has overshadowed attention to the policy positions adopted by the two leading candidates in the Democratic primary, particularly on healthcare and investment to address climate change — two issues that are similarly sparking intense debate in the Democratic presidential nominating contest.

“Who’s the Democrat for US Senate endorsed by progressives and unions? Erica Smith,” the narrator says in the 30-second advertising spot purchased Faith and Power PAC. “Who’s got the courage to vote for Medicare for All? Erica Smith. The number-one supporter of the Green New Deal? Erica Smith, again. Erica Smith is one of us. A high school educator, engineer, state senator and ordained minister. Erica Smith is the real deal.”

Whatever the intentions behind the ad, Smith told Triad City Beat that the contents accurately reflect her candidacy, down to the biographical details.

And lest there be any confusion, she fully supports Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.

“The Affordable Care Act, because of the teeth that’s been taken out through the courts and regulatory changes by President Trump’s administration, we’re going to have to transition to a single-payer plan and Medicare for All,” Smith said. Smith supports a 2019 bill filed by US Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) described by Vox as “the most ambitious plan for government-run healthcare yet.”

Smith said she hasn’t studied the Green New Deal legislation filed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), but the plan outlined on the candidate’s campaign website champions significant investment to address climate change while “creating millions of good-paying ‘green’ jobs.” A native of Northampton County in northeastern North Carolina, Smith told TCB her plan also incorporates funding for resiliency planning to help areas of the country affected by flooding and sea-level rise.

Cunningham has offered more modest proposals to improve healthcare coverage and address climate change.

“I will work to strengthen and extend coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and will stand up against all attempts to roll back protections for people with pre-existing conditions and other benefits of this law,” he said, according to a statement provided by the campaign. “I will also build on the ACA by creating a public-health insurance option, and do more to support rural hospitals and address doctor shortages.”

Cunningham calls climate change “one of the most urgent issues we face,” and calls for investment in “a clean energy economy that will create good-paying jobs” and “reduce carbon pollution.” Like Smith, Cunningham supports the United States rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement.

The Charlotte Observer and News & Observer highlighted the policy differences in the newspapers’ endorsement of Cunningham on Friday. “For primary voters who are concerned more with choosing a candidate most equipped to beat Tillis,” the editorial panel said, “Cunningham offers the clearest path forward. His more moderate positions on issues such as healthcare will appeal to the persuadable voters that Democrats need for a repeat of the 2018 blue wave, and Tillis surely would prefer to spend the summer telling those center-to-right North Carolinians about Smith’s Medicare for All support and advocacy of marijuana legalization.”

Cunningham has responded to the ad buy with fighting words against the Republican nominee.

“I have a message for [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Thom Tillis: We are coming for you,” he said during a candidate forum in Charlotte on Feb. 11. “They are trying to disrupt Democrats either by weakening my candidacy or making it harder for Democrats to come together after the primary…. My gut tells me North Carolinians have a really strong BS meter. And this is triggering it.”

Smith told TCB that far from being the beneficiary of the Faith and Power PAC ad buy — now topping $2.4 million, according to one recent report — she feels like the victim. As an African-American woman, Smith said she wants to be judged on her merits, but noted that only two African-American women have served in the US Senate, arguing that the ad buy is designed to exploit racist attitudes that black candidates are untrustworthy.

“You’ve got to ask yourself: Why would they would take this calculated risk?” she said. “They want to make some voters feel like they can’t trust me because I’m working with Republicans, which is not the case.”

Federal election law prohibits candidates from coordinating with independent spending groups, and Smith said the law has similarly constrained her from reaching out directly to the group to ask them to take the ads down. But soon after the ads began running, the Smith campaign issued a statement saying they “disavow and disassociate ourselves from this interference of Republican in the US Senate primary in North Carolina.”

Smith told TCB she considers the ad campaign “not just an attack of dark money,” but also an example of “voter suppression.”

Smith disputes the notion that she’s less electable than Cunningham.

She pointed to an Emerson College poll conducted in late May and early June, in 2019, before Cunningham got into the race, showing Smith polling 7 points ahead of Tillis in a general election matchup. And a Meredith College poll conducted in late September and early October, showed Smith beating Tillis, but Cunningham losing to Tillis. In each case, the margin is less than 1 point.

“Hands down, I’m beating Thom Tillis by the widest margin,” Smith said. “What we know is that Washington, DC is shaken up because I’m not the establishment candidate. I’m the candidate that’s un-bought and un-bossed.”

More recent polling shows Cunningham leading Smith in the primary contest. Two polls conducted by Public Policy Polling show Cunningham doubling his lead from Jan. 14 to Feb. 6, with 29 percent of likely Democratic voters saying they would support Cunningham, compared to 10 percent for Smith. Steve Swenson and Trevor Fuller, the other two candidates in the race, received 4 percent and 3 percent respectively. The Feb. 6 poll by Public Policy Polling also found that Cunningham is the favorite candidate among both white and black voters. White voters who responded to the poll overwhelmingly supported Cunningham over Smith, 36 percent to 8 percent, while black voters were more evenly split, 21 percent to 16 percent.

A High Point University poll released on Feb. 12 delivered almost identical results, with 29 percent of voters favoring Cunningham, 10 percent backing Smith and 5 percent each for Swenson and Fuller.

But another important number suggests that voters aren’t yet tuned in to the Senate race and have yet to make a decision: 50 percent of those responding to the High Point University poll said they do not yet have a preference in the race.

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