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.”

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

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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

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.”

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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