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Democrats Elaine Marshall, Kevin Foy, Kenneth Lewis and Cal Cunningham seek to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr in 2010.

Dems enter U.S. Senate race with a Burr under their saddles 

A lawyer, a former state legislator and the N.C. Secretary of State: With Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy, they are the initial go-getters trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Richard Burr in 2010.

And, according to a recent poll, any of them has a good chance to win next year's Democratic primary. But whether they can beat Burr, a one-term Senate Republican (he served in the U.S. House from 1995-2004), depends on the amount of money the candidates raise, the national sentiment toward Dems and the cachet the Democratic nominee carries, not only in the state's progressive locales, but in more conservative regions in the mountains and down east.

Support for Burr tepid, but enough to win

If the Senate election were held today, Republican U.S. Sen. Burr would likely win, but not overwhelmingly, according to Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling.

In an survey of 749 North Carolina voters conducted Aug. 4-10, Burr polls at only 43 percent against the four Democratic challengers: N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, former State Sen. Cal Cunningham, Durham attorney Kenneth Lewis and Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy.

No Democrat has broken away from the pack: Marshall leads against Burr with 31 percent of voters, compared with Cunningham at 28 percent and Lewis and Foy at 27 percent each.

Burr's approval rating is 38 percent—and that's an improvement more likely due to the public's dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama rather than any factors related directly to Burr, PPP reported. About a third of voters disapprove of Burr's performance and 30 percent aren't sure.

Of those polled, 47 percent said they voted for John McCain last year, compared with 46 percent for Obama.

Download the poll (PDF, 109 KB)

Durham attorney Kenneth Lewis, former State Sen. Cal Cunningham (also a lawyer), and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall are laying their campaign groundwork. (Wake County Democrat and State Sen. Dan Blue, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2002 and placed second behind Erskine Bowles and ahead of Marshall, is reportedly mulling another run. And reported Aug. 16 that Democratic former Lieutenant Governor Dennis Wicker is considering entering the race.)

A Harvard Law School graduate from Person County, Lewis criticized Burr's record, including the senator's vote against the economic stimulus package and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In addition, Lewis said, Burr's stance on health care reform—he opposes President Obama's plan, claiming it would "decimate North Carolina"—does not help ordinary citizens. Lewis supports affordability, patient choice, a reduction in health care costs and a plan that moves toward universal coverage.

Lewis, who ran a small law firm in Raleigh for 12 years, said he understands the costs and frustrations of providing health benefits to employees "I know how important the tax deduction for providing those health benefits is. Burr would limit those deductions and put the employees on the open market."

Lewis said he raised $109,000 in his first three weeks of campaigning. "At that pace of giving, we're raising $5,000 a day and could raise $750,000, to a million by the end of the year," Lewis said.

If Lewis maintains his fund-raising pace, it still won't catch Burr, who has raised $4.3 million in this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. More than $200,000 of those contributions came from the pharmaceutical and health care industries.

Cunningham served in the General Assembly from 2001-02 representing Davidson, Rowan and Iredell counties, but he did not run for re-election. In 2008, he returned to his hometown of Lexington after completing a one-year tour in Iraq as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and a military prosecutor at the Multi-National Corps-Iraq. During his tour, Cunningham prosecuted contractors and procurement fraud in Iraq, and he led the first court-martial of a contractor under military law since 1968. He was one of seven U.S. Army reservists to win the MacArthur Leadership Award

However, Cunningham has not yet formulated a campaign platform, stating only that he is "talking to friends and fellow Democrats around the state to determine the issues facing the state and country."

"I will be prepared to talk about this when we kick off," he said, adding he would announce what issues he will take on as senator, "in the first 15 seconds of my announcement."

Marshall did not return calls to the Indy, but at a recent Chatham County Democratic Party breakfast she said she has "bucked conventional traditions" her entire career. "I've built a career on taking on tough fights and winning," she said. "I understand where the points of power are and the people who control them."

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