Erica Smith Says She Can Beat Thom Tillis, but Democrats Aren’t So Sure

Strategists in North Carolina, D.C. wary about the party's current candidates

Democrats are still working to recruit a preferred challenger to Sen. Thom Tillis, one of the most vulnerable senators up for re-election this cycle. (Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
  • State Sen. Erica Smith says she has what it takes to unseat first-term GOP Sen. Thom Tillis.

  • But Democrats are looking at former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, state Sen. Jeff Jackson, former state Treasurer Janet Cowell and former state Sen. Eric Mansfield as possible contenders.

  • Tillis, who faces his own primary next year, is weak with Republican voters compared with other Republican senators up for re-election.

Before Thom Tillis was a vulnerable Republican senator, before Barack Obama became the first black president and while Donald Trump was embarking on an early season of his hit NBC show “The Apprentice,” Erica Smith was already thinking about her campaign for U.S. Senate in North Carolina.

At a Congressional Black Caucus Institute “boot camp” in 2005, she said she started to sketch out a decade-long political path that could make her the state’s first African American senator after the 2016 election. She briefly put her plans on hold after her 5-year-old son died in 2012, and continued to serve in local office before launching her campaign earlier this year.

In an interview Tuesday, the Democrat — now a North Carolina state senator — said she’s “worked my way toward it,” and is confident she has what it takes.

“I can beat Thom Tillis,” she said.  

But a half-dozen Democatic strategists voiced concern that all that planning might not be enough to cut it, and they’re seeking a candidate with statewide experience and fundraising prowess to beat the Republican incumbent in what’s expected to be a tough but competitive race next year.

Democrats are in talks with at least four others in hopes that they may run, according to Democratic strategists involved in the state. The list includes former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, state Sen. Jeff Jackson, former state Treasurer Janet Cowell and former state Sen. Eric Mansfield. The first three potential challengers didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story, while Mansfield is officially exploring a bid.

Cunningham, Cowell and Mansfield all have some statewide experience.

Cunningham ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Senate when Sen. Richard Burr (R) was seeking a second term in 2010. Cowell became the first woman elected to her former statewide gig. And Mansfield — now working as a doctor — ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nod for lieutenant governor in 2012.  

Like Smith, Mansfield is black — a trait that could appeal to a core constituency for the Democratic Party, particularly in the South — and Cowell is a woman, which makes her attractive to well-funded outside groups such as EMILY’s List.

And in a state with a large military footprint, Cunningham, Jackson and Mansfield can all speak to their experience in the Armed Forces: Cunningham served in the Army Reserve, Jackson’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and still serves in the Army National Guard, and Mansfield served as an Army doctor.

Several strategists of both political parties interviewed over the past month have said the prospect of an open seat in 2022, with Burr having already said he will not seek another term, may be weighing on the potential candidates.

But Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said while a 2022 race might look attractive now, that could quickly change depending on what happens in 2020’s presidential contest.  

“If a Democrat waits to run and then the Democrats win the White House in 2020, they’d have to deal with the presidential party midterm burden,” he said in an email Tuesday. “On the flip side, if Trump wins again, the GOP would have the midterm burden.”

Scott Falmlen, a Raleigh-based Democratic strategist and a former executive director of the state Democratic Party, said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been in talks with the potential contenders and is “closing in on a preferred candidate” with the goal of helping to line up a Tillis challenger by the end of the month, when the second fundraising quarter comes to a close.

Falmlen and other Democratic strategists interviewed believe the party has “a bit of breathing room” since Tillis has what’s shaping up to be an expensive primary on his hands against retired businessman Garland Tucker.

“Nobody’s hitting the panic button,” Falmlen said.

Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the DSCC, said in an email Wednesday: “Democrats will have a strong Senate nominee in this race, and the question is whether Tillis will even make it to the general election.”

Tillis, who very publicly clashed with Trump over his national emergency declaration to pay for his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, is weak with Republican voters compared to other Republican senators up for re-election next year. His campaign declined to comment.

Still, statewide campaigns are expensive, and every day not in the race is a fundraising opportunity lost ahead of what could be a crowded television market next fall in North Carolina — a presidential battleground that will also feature a re-election bid by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who is quite popular given the state’s recent lean away from the party. 

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller has also launched a bid, and like Smith, Democrats have concerns with his ability to raise money. According to the Federal Election Commission, he raised less than $24,000 in the first quarter of the year, while she raised $16,800 along with a $4,500 loan to herself.

Smith, who had a kickoff event for her campaign last month, said the fundraising focus by strategists and Democrats in Washington is overdone. Smith, who also is set to meet with the DSCC later this month, said a number of candidates in the 2018 midterms were successful in primaries without the support of national groups, and expects financial “doors will open up” for any Democrat who ultimately emerges to challenge Tillis.

“There was a definite movement of strong women who appear to be not the establishment candidate,” she said. “I know the DSCC was looking for someone with a bigger name or bigger pockets, and my response is: The DSCC needs to look at someone with a big heart and a big record of service.”

This story has been updated to include Smith’s fundraising numbers.