WASHINGTON — North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall plans to challenge U.S. Sen. Richard Burr for his seat next year, becoming the first experienced Democrat to file for the chance to take on the Republican incumbent.
Marshall, a former state senator, was first elected secretary of state in 1996, when she defeated NASCAR legend Richard Petty. She was the first woman elected to statewide executive office. In 2002, she unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
Durham, N.C., lawyer Kenneth Lewis is the only other announced Democratic candidate.
For months, political observers have wondered who would challenge Burr, a first-term senator whose name recognition lags across the state. Senate Democrats consider Burr prime for picking off next year, but they’ve had a hard time recruiting a candidate.
Prominent state Democrats, including Attorney General Roy Cooper and former Gov. Mike Easley, along with U.S .Rep. Brad Miller of Raleigh, all passed on the chance.
Marshall did not return a call for comment Wednesday.
But she has been repeatedly mentioned as a potential candidate. In a hypothetical lineup against Burr, Marshall polled 31 percent to Burr’s 43 percent in March and again last month, according to a survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic automated polling firm in Raleigh.
“She is a serious candidate,” said the firm’s Tom Jensen. But he said Marshall’s name recognition hovers at 28 percent despite 13 years in statewide office.
“The key for her, very bluntly, is to raise a whole heck of a lot of money,” Jensen said.
Burr campaign consultant Paul Shumaker has said next year’s Senate race could reach $60 million. Burr has been running a steady stream of fundraisers in recent months, and he has at least three scheduled in the Washington area in the next month. Shumaker said the senator is working to raise his name recognition as well.
“We just finished going across the state to talk about health care,” Shumaker said. “We’re on track to where we need to be on fund-raising.”
Shumaker said Wednesday he wasn’t surprised to see Marshall officially enter the race.
Burr had invited Marshall to participate in a health care forum two weeks ago at the N.C. Medical Society, but she never responded, Shumaker said.
“It’s incumbent on her to let the people of North Carolina know where she stands today on this issue,” Shumaker said. “We welcome her to the race, and now we hope she’ll start answering questions.”
(Lewis had agreed to participate in the health forum, but in the end Burr appeared alone, deciding he wanted a wider slate of Democrats.)
Beyond the candidates who already have filed, several other Democrats also are potential contenders for the Senate race.
Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy visited Washington last week to talk with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The DSCC also has talked with U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge of Lillington and former lieutenant governor Dennis Wicker.
And former state Sen. Cal Cunningham of Lexington is expected to file his candidacy.
DSSC spokesman Eric Schultz said Burr holds one of two incumbent Republican seats the committee is targeting in 2010.
"We believe Sen. Burr's especially vulnerable," Schultz said. "He's been very explicit that he doesn't want to lift a finger on healthcare or the economy."