Erica Smith is late.
Her empty chair sits on the stage beside three men hoping to challenge Thom Tillis this fall. National Democrats have pinned their hopes on the one to the far left, Cal Cunningham, a six-foot-tall veteran in a dark gray suit who has, by today, January 25, already raised north of $3 million.
Cunningham looks like a senator, like one you’d order from central casting. If you close your eyes and think of the words “North Carolina Democrat,” something like him probably comes to mind. He’s from a small town. He served in a war. He has a beautiful wife and picture-perfect children. He’s a successful lawyer. He has a winning smile. He’s politically nonthreatening.
Cunningham grips the mic with intention. Though seated, his voice projects loudly to the audience at the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association’s candidate forum, his confidence tangible as he regurgitates soundbites from his by-now-familiar commercials, his tone somewhere between that of a minister and a car salesman.
“Together this fall, we’re going to replace Thom Tillis in the U.S. Senate,” he says.
He repeats, nearly verbatim, remarks he gave a few hours earlier at an NAACP forum in Greenboro—how when he served as senior trial counsel in Iraq and Afghanistan, he could have never imagined that the country’s greatest threat would come from Washington, D.C.
Erica Smith was late to that forum, too.
Cunningham finishes. Little-known candidate Steve Swenson goes next, offering a forgettable introduction. He’s followed by Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller, who stands to address the crowd. Cunningham appears to take a mental note, wishing he’d done the same.
As the candidates spar over the first question from the panel, Erica Smith bursts through the doors in the back of the room and bolts to claim her space on stage. She’s in an elegant navy pantsuit, but her style has a certain joyous imperfection. The state senator, who has represented North Carolina’s rural northeastern edge for the last five years, asks to be allowed an introduction.
With the mic in her hand, her energy consumes the room. Unscripted and jarringly earnest, Smith recounts her journey from Boeing engineer to teacher and preacher, from being raised in Eastern North Carolina to working her way up the ranks of the General Assembly.
Smith was the first Democrat to enter the race, back in January 2019. In June and again in August, she made a pitch to the party’s powerbrokers in D.C., but she says they were noncommittal. She later learned the DSCC had met with Cunningham in May. He got the group’s endorsement in October.
She says she knew the campaign would be an uphill battle. But her entire life has been an uphill battle. She grew up poor and black. She almost died in childbirth. She watched her youngest son die and her second husband get charged with rape.
But she’s persevered. Everything she’s accomplished, she did herself, through grit and determination and her unassailable brilliance. She was made for the hustle—and made from it. At 50, she’s learned not to listen to the doubters.
There are plenty of doubters. Objectively, there’s good reason to doubt.
At the end of 2019, Cunningham had an 11–1 cash advantage, which has helped him buy TV ads and amass a 27-point lead in the most recent poll.
Gary Pearce, a former adviser to Governor Jim Hunt, says that to win elections, you need to abide by the “two Ms rule”: You need a message, and you need money—and the organization that money buys—to get your message out. Smith has the first. She lacks the second.
“Particularly Democrats, we’re idealists,” Pearce told me. “We like to think money is the root of evil, and it is, in a lot of cases. But it’s also the only way to get information to people.”
Smith isn’t listening. She’s focused on the hustle—swearing off corporate PAC money, driving from forum to forum on a shoestring budget, taking her message to voters one at a time if she has to. The system is broken, she says, especially for women of color. But it doesn’t have to be. She’s determined to prove that big ideas can overcome big money.
“Let’s be honest here,” she says. “Black women are never going to have the money that white men have. We don’t earn dollar for dollar. We earn 65 cents on the dollar. As a public school educator, I don’t have $50,000 to loan to my campaign. I have truly shown what can be done with a reasonable budget a reasonable fundraising plan. If you truly want big money out of politics, then you will back the candidate that is based on the merit and the message.”
But Tillis is vulnerable, and this isn’t an election Democratic bigwigs are willing to lose by gambling on an ideological purist.
The party, says political consultant Perry Woods, made “a raw calculation who they think can best win. There’s a moral imperative. What’s on the line, frankly, this year is whether we are going to continue the great American experiment and save our democracy.”
Smith’s supporters would counter that, while Cunningham is likable, he’s not exciting. She’s the race’s wildcard, a candidate willing to buck convention. The question is, how far can a candidate go swimming against the tide?
James Calvin Cunningham III grew up in Lexington, population 19,000, the self-proclaimed “barbecue capital of the world,” where the town hall contains 19th-century brick pits, prominently displayed.
“I love my barbecue,” Cunningham says, biting into a bacon, egg, and cheese croissant at Cafe Carolina, a few blocks from his house in Cameron Village. He’s sprawled out at a table in the back beside his communications manager. A white three-ring binder packed full of notes and research sits open on the table.
The oldest of three children, Cunningham says he learned to take responsibility at a young age. He grew up active in the church and mowed lawns on the weekends to save up for his first guitar. He attended Vanderbilt University before transferring to the UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studied political science and philosophy. He graduated in 1996, then earned his law degree from UNC School of Law.
Without missing a beat, Cunningham launched into his political career. In 2000, he ran for the General Assembly at age 27, and won, but only served one term before redistricting turned his rural district, south of Winston-Salem, red.
After 9/11, Cunningham joined the army reserves. In 2007, he shipped out to Iraq to serve as a prosecutor, working with the Judge Advocate General’s office to weed out misconduct among military contractors. For that work, Cunningham was awarded the Bronze Star and General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. He carried a gun, but he never fired it at an enemy. For exercise, he ran around the base in Baghdad. Time moved slowly.
In 2010, he returned to the Middle East to serve a second tour in Afghanistan, a country he describes as even more desolate and “primitive.” At least in Iraq, he says, there was a McDonald’s.
(Of North Carolina’s major cities, Cunningham is most likely to meet resistance in Durham. In 2013, he represented a controversial luxury housing development known as 751 South. The city and county governments tried to block it. Cunningham, however, leaned on his relationship with future House Speaker Tim Moore—a law school friend—to get the General Assembly to force the city to provide water and sewer to the project.)
Cunningham’s pitch to Democrats is straightforward: He can beat Thom Tillis, a former state House speaker who narrowly defeated Senator Kay Hagan six years ago, but who is now one of the least popular incumbents in the country. Tillis ran promising to be an independent voice, but he’s bound himself to President Trump, hoping the president’s coattails are long enough to pull him over the finish line.
Tillis’s inevitable efforts to paint his opponent as a wild-eyed socialist won’t work on him, Cunningham says, no matter who’s atop the Democratic ticket.
He’s more moderate than Erica Smith on issues like health care and the climate crisis. He wants a public option, not Medicare for All. He’s been an environmental lawyer, but he hasn’t signed on to the Green New Deal. He voted for Pete Buttigieg—a fellow veteran—not Bernie Sanders. He’ll appeal to the suburbs, not play to the base. He’s not running to spark a revolution but to restore dignity.
Today, he tells me, is his daughter’s 18th birthday (yes, she’s registered to vote), and she’s responsible for his decision to run for office—lieutenant governor at first, then U.S. Senate. One morning last year, as the family was getting ready for school, she heard someone on television talking about one of Trump’s late-night Twitter rants. Suddenly, his normally reserved daughter pointed at the TV: “So what are you gonna do about it, Dad?”
Cunningham tells this story a lot. He tells a lot of his stories a lot. There’s nothing Cunningham tells me that he hasn’t told thousands of potential voters already (save, perhaps, for an admission that he loves the Grateful Dead). He is careful and disciplined. He knows the script and he sticks to it.
He’s also very intelligent and very organized. And his campaign is a well-oiled machine.
While we finish breakfast, a gaggle of staffers is already driving to Greensboro, where Cunningham would address the NAACP in a few hours. We leave in time to arrive early.
His communications manager takes the wheel of a silver Jeep Compass, and Cunningham assumes the front seat. I ask questions to the back of his head. He leafs through the white three-ring binder.
I ask if he color-coordinates all of his binders.
No, he replies. His binders are always white. I ask why.
“White is for the good guys. I’ve never rethought it.”
Erica Smith is late.
Her black and gray poncho is slung over the stall door of the Sheetz bathroom. She shuffles inside, changing into evening wear.
“I change in gas stations all the time,” she says.
Smith has no gaggle of advance staff, no communications manager to drive her, no staff photographer snapping pictures everywhere she goes, no white three-ring binders. Her campaign is often her and her identical twin, Alicia, who hates politics but loves her sister, as well as a campaign manager and some volunteers who may or may not show up when needed. She’s always rushing. There’s always chaos. Today—February 8—is no different.
We were supposed to head to Alicia’s house in Durham so Smith could change before driving to Charlotte, where she’ll deliver a keynote to the nation’s second-oldest black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. But we lingered too long at the HKonJ rally in Raleigh, so the Sheetz off Miami Boulevard will have to do.
Smith’s car, a red Toyota Venza hatchback, is a mobile closet, full of dress pants, blouses, dresses, and shoes. Alicia rummages through the trunk as Smith emerges from the gas station in a sparkly red dress suit and bright blue sneakers. Smith flings stilettos onto the pavement as she puts mismatched heels on her stockinged feet and asks which pair matches the dress.
“This is real, people,” Smith laughs. “A real democracy.”
They go with taupe.
Alicia and Erica were born in Fort Bragg to a military family and moved to the Philippines and then Texas before eventually settling on a farm in Gaston, where the girls spent summers waking up in the dark to pick cucumbers for the farmers market. The family wasn’t well off. They needed the money.
After high school, Erica and Alicia attended North Carolina A&T State University and earned engineering degrees. Erica moved to Seattle to work for Boeing after graduation, and four years later followed her husband to Washington, D.C., where she got a job with the U.S. Patent Office.
She married, had two children, and divorced, moving back to Gaston to care for her ailing father while continuing to commute several hours a day to the patent office. Sick of the commute, she started teaching math in Virginia public schools. She married and divorced again. She earned a master’s degree in divinity from Howard University and got ordained. Following her first divorce, Smith ventured into politics. In 2006, she unsuccessfully ran for the school board in Northampton County, then ran again and won two years later. She’d been mapping out her next step—the state Senate–since 2005, but really, it had been a dream since childhood.
In 2014, she made her move, challenging Democratic incumbent Clark Jenkins in the primary. She won by eight points*. Despite working in a Republican supermajority, she was named Freshman Senator of the Year in 2016.
She started thinking about moving up again. She set her eyes on the U.S. Senate.
It hasn’t been a smooth ride.
During her first year in the legislature, her second husband, Maud Ingram, was indicted on rape charges.
Smith doesn’t like to talk about it—out of respect for the victims, she says. When I ask how it affected her, she deflects.
“We kept our eyes focused on our work and the community we serve and raising my family and getting us through that crisis,” Smith says. “I never paused to think about how I feel and how it affects me because the priority is the other people who were impacted by this, whose lives were devastated.”
She did the only thing she knew how to do: She kept going. She’d done it before when she’d met tragedy.
During her third pregnancy, Smith suffered from hypertension. At the end of her second trimester, tests showed the baby was in distress. Her doctors asked her who she wanted to save—her or her baby.
At 37, Smith decided she was prepared to die.
Despite the odds, Elias was born at 24 weeks, weighing just over one pound. But he suffered a cranial bleed and had to be given a tracheostomy due to his prematurity. And so began Smith’s agonizing years-long battle with her insurance company, which refused to cover a component for Elias’s trach tube and initially denied her request for an in-home aide.
It only ended when Elias died in 2012 at the age of five.
But Smith didn’t give in to anger or sadness.
“There are people all over this nation who go through worse, and every day they have to fight their way to get up. I have always had a strong support system and a positive outlook on life,” Smith says. “It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you respond and how you keep moving forward.”
Smith is funny and down to earth, smart and quirky. She looks you in the eyes and makes you feel seen.
There was a fundraiser scheduled for after her speech in Charlotte, but Smith hears there’s a power outage, so she cancels it. Raising money isn’t her top priority, she says.
As I write this, Smith says she’s raised $275,000, mostly from small donors, $5 or $10 at a time.
We’re already 20 minutes late to the sorority event when snow starts to speckle the windshield. Alicia starts to worry. Erica puts on headphones and meditates, her pre-speech ritual.
The chaos never fazes her.
Cunningham wasn’t Chuck Schumer’s first choice. Or second, or third.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee courted state Senator Jeff Jackson, former state Senator Eric Mansfield, and former Treasurer Janet Cowell before it glanced in Cunningham’s direction. Jackson would later say he turned the party down because he didn’t want to spend 16 months in a “windowless basement” dialing donors for money to run attack ads on Tillis.
To hear Cunningham tell it, the DSCC didn’t recruit him at all. In the spring of 2019, he was traveling the state, campaigning for lieutenant governor. But the people he met asked him to take on Tillis instead.
“Every time I was having a conversation, and invariably, and I can say this with almost no exception: ‘Why aren’t you offering to run against Thom Tillis?’ It was over and over and over again,” Cunningham says. “It just took off, and it made sense, and it was never about anyone else.”
Like so much of what Cunningham says, this story has a canned, almost robotic quality to it.
But no matter whose idea it was, to party officials running out of options, Cunningham—and the $500,000 he’d already raised (including $200,000 he’d loaned himself)—was increasingly attractive. The DSCC knew him, too. The party had backed him in 2010, when he challenged Elaine Marshall in a messy Senate primary.
Marshall came out nine points ahead but didn’t secure a majority. Cunningham called for a runoff. Marshall crushed him, winning by 20. But she had to spend time and money doing it—time and money that could have gone toward battling Richard Burr, to whom the now-secretary of state lost handily.
Marshall got no help from the DSCC.
Thomas Mills is still salty about that.
“I have a lot of resentments against them,” says Mills, a Democratic consultant who ran Marshall’s campaign. “Had [the DSCC] not pushed the primary, Elaine may have had a lot more money, and they may have been putting more money into the race behind us.”
In June, Cunningham announced that he was abandoning his lieutenant governor campaign to run for Senate. By July, it was clear the party was in his corner. Out-of-state donations poured in; donors maxed out. In October, the DSCC made it official, formally endorsing Cunningham’s campaign.
Smith issued a blistering response: “This endorsement cuts to the integrity and ethics of this election. If the DSCC has been involved all along, then it should disclose the details of its prior involvement to the voters of North Carolina. Ultimately, the voters of North Carolina will decide who their next United States Senator will be—NOT a handful of DC politicians making backroom deals in windowless basements.”
The DSCC, Smith says, “has a history of not endorsing black candidates and not backing women.” Progressives have sharply criticized the party’s involvement. In a state that, not counting judicial races, has only elected one black person to a statewide position, the party’s decision couldn’t help but be seen through a racial prism. Indeed, earlier this month, civil rights leader the Reverend William J. Barber II blasted the party on Twitter for “picking a candidate in the primary.”
But Mills thinks the DSCC was simply being pragmatic: This is a race Democrats need to win to take back the Senate. And they looked at Smith and saw a campaign—and a candidate—that wasn’t ready for primetime.
Three months after Smith entered the race in January 2019, she’d raised just $21,000. To the DSCC, that’s a red flag; it costs about $40,000 a month to run a large-scale statewide political operation.
“The only reason to get into a race that early is to clear the field,” Mills says. “And you do that showing you can raise the money and you can put together the organization.”
Had she done those things, she would have been a strong contender. To win statewide, Democrats need high African American turnout and for suburban women to break their way. With the right message, Smith could likely deliver both.
“You could make an argument, strongly, that Erica would be better on the ticket to turn out votes,” Woods says. “More minorities and low-information voters may be more willing to show up to vote for Erica than for Cal.”
But, he adds, “Erica has not demonstrated the ability to raise the money it’s going to take. It’s sad, but it’s where we are.”
In February, TV ads went up all over the state praising Smith for her commitment to the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, spliced with a picture of progressive darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She was “the real deal,” the black narrator said, the race’s “only proven progressive.”
But the ads didn’t come from the Smith campaign. Instead, they came from a brand-new PAC called Faith and Power, which, media outlets quickly learned, had ties to the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Last week, The Hill reported that Faith and Power was funded by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s super PAC.
Smith disavowed the ads, but it didn’t matter. The message, according to Cunningham, was clear: Tillis was afraid of him, so Republicans were trying to prop up a weaker adversary.
“It probably illustrates the stakes—that they see that Thom Tillis is extraordinarily weak, very vulnerable, and that their best play is to cause mischief,” Cunningham says. “We’re wise to it, and we’re on alert that there will be more to come.”
In response, Cunningham upped his own ad buy. He already has PACs working on his behalf: The Vote Vets Action Fund has shelled out more than $6 million so far, while Carolina Blue has spent $1.1 million promoting Cunningham.
He has little reason to be concerned: The most recent poll, from Public Policy Polling, has him besting Smith 45–18.
Somehow, we arrive at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Charlotte at precisely 2:00 p.m.—late, but in time for Smith to give her keynote address to Delta Sigma Theta. As we enter the banquet hall, we’re greeted by a sea of crimson dresses. As frenzied as the day has been, everything worked out. The same was true with the RWCA event: She came late, but she got the group’s endorsement.
This sort of serendipity lends itself to faith, and Smith has that in abundance. Her speech is a rousing sermon on the urgency of the moment. She’s sick of waiting for the patriarchy to give her the green light. Rosa Parks didn’t wait. Shirley Chisholm didn’t wait.
Erica Smith isn’t going to wait.
She’s bitter at the DSCC—bitter that the party interfered, that party elites tried to erase her, that they chose a white man over a black woman. But damned if she’s going to let that stop her. She’s never listened to doubters before. She’s not going to start now.
“We cannot wait another day,” Smith tells the crowd. “Until we have a voice that looks like us, understands us, has been through our struggles, been through our troubles, we don’t need to wait another day!”
Contact Raleigh staff writer Leigh Tauss at email@example.com.
*Correction: The story has been updated to clarify that Cunningham served in Baghdad. Additionally, Cliff Jenkins, whom Erica Smith challenged in 2014, was a Democrat. Smith defeated him in the primary. The district is safely Democratic. The INDY regrets these errors.
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