Rev. William Barber Rev. William Barber

Rev. William Barber

Paul Specht
By Paul Specht March 5, 2020

Rev. Barber slams DSCC for overlooking black candidates in NC Senate primaries

If Your Time is short

  • The DSCC has picked favorites in North Carolina's Democratic primary for years, overlooking every black candidate in recent history.
  • In 2008, a black attorney named Marcus Williams filed to run.
  • But the DSCC in the primary supported Kay Hagan, who went on to beat incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole.

When it comes to endorsements, North Carolina’s political parties mostly refrain from picking favorites in primary elections.

The same is not true for organizations in Washington.

This year the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is supporting Cal Cunningham in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race. The DSCC picked Cunningham over Erica Smith, Trevor Fuller and Atul Goel, who are all vying to face incumbent Republican Thom Tillis.

The DSCC’s decision didn’t go over well with the Rev. William Barber, a liberal activist from North Carolina. Smith, who is black, along with Cunningham is considered a top primary competitor.

"Every time this has happened in the past & the person they didn’t support was black, the candidate they picked ended up losing in the fall b/c Dems unnecessarily divided themselves in the primary," Barber tweeted on Feb. 20, adding that the DSCC should stay out of the primary.

Is it true that every time the DSCC has endorsed a candidate in North Carolina’s US Senate primary, and overlooked a black Democrat, the endorsed candidate went on to lose?

Martha Waggoner, a spokeswoman for Barber, said Barber had one race in mind, back in 2002.

That year, "the Democratic establishment went outside its normal way of doing business and endorsed Erskine Bowles in a primary race that included Dan Blue," she said.

Bowles beat Blue in the Democratic primary, then went on to lose to Republican Elizabeth Dole. Blue is now the minority leader in the state Senate.

"Since Blue was the only previous Democratic African American candidate for U.S. Senate here, his use of ‘every time’ was referring to this instance," she said.

But the claims by Waggoner and Barber are both inaccurate. 

In recent years, several black candidates filed to run for Senate in North Carolina. And in 2008, the DSCC overlooked a black candidate to support Kay Hagan, who went on to win the seat.

To check Barber’s claim, we searched for an election where:

  • A black Democrat filed to run for U.S. Senate in North Carolina,

  • In the primary, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee supported a candidate who is not black,

  • The DSCC’s chosen candidate went on to win.

This situation happened with Hagan.

Hagan over Dole

North Carolina voters have only elected two Democrats to the U.S. Senate over the last 22 years: Hagan in 2008 and John Edwards in 1998.

In 2008, five Democrats signed up to run against incumbent Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole: Hagan, Duskin Lassiter, Jim Neal, Howard Staley, and Marcus Williams.

Williams, an attorney, was the only black candidate in the race.

News reports show that the DSCC not only backed Hagan in the primary, but talked her into running. 

Indyweek reported in 2008 that the DSCC, along with state Democratic leaders, "talked Hagan into running last fall just weeks after she announced that she wouldn't." The News & Observer reported in 2007 that Hagan was recruited by former Gov. Jim Hunt and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, after they had tried unsuccessfully to recruit state Rep. Grier Martin of Raleigh.

DSCC spokesman Matt Miller told Politico in 2008 that his group "worked hard to get Hagan; we really thought Dole was vulnerable," he said, adding: "Hagan has turned out to be a great candidate, all under the D.C. radar." 

Campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show the DSCC spent tens of thousands of dollars on Hagan’s campaign prior to the May 6, 2008, primary.

Black Senate candidates

In North Carolina, several black candidates have run for U.S. Senate in recent years. And the DSCC hasn’t endorsed any of them. But the DSCC’s pick has not usually worked out in the general election.

In 2016, Ernest Reeves and Chris Rey were defeated in the Democratic primary by Deborah Ross, who was endorsed by the DSCC. In the general election, Ross lost to incumbent Republican Richard Burr.

In 2014, Hagan was the incumbent. Reeves ran against her in the primary and lost. Hagan went on to lose to Tillis.

In 2010, there were three black candidates: Ken Lewis, Ann Worthy and the same Marcus Williams from 2008. As in 2020, the DSCC supported Cunningham in the primary. 

But it was Elaine Marshall who won the Democratic nomination. She then lost to Burr in the general election.

Recent DSCC picks

Another of Barber’s Feb. 20 tweets was a little more on-point.

"People from DC picking candidates in NC hasn’t been a winning formula & opens up criticism of racial favoritism," Barber tweeted.

Dating back to 2008, there have been four US Senate elections in North Carolina. 

In one case, the DSCC’s candidate won the primary and the general election. In two cases, the DSCC-supported candidate won the primary but lost the general. And in one case, 2010, the DSCC backed a candidate who didn't even win the primary.

When PolitiFact shared its findings with Barber, he credited Hagan’s 2008 win to "Obama’s coattails."

"It was an election like no other, and the endorsement still wasn't right. Let North Carolinians choose their own candidate. After the primary, everybody can get behind that person," he said in an email.

Our ruling

Barber said that "every time" the Democratic establishment overlooked a black candidate and endorsed someone else in the U.S. Senate primary, that candidate went on to lose. 

Records show that there was a black candidate, Marcus Williams, in the 2008 U.S. Senate race. That year, the DSCC backed Kay Hagan in the primary and she went on to beat incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole.

Barber’s claim was too sweeping. He’s right that the DSCC doesn’t have a great record in North Carolina. But he’s wrong to say the DSCC-backed candidate has lost "every time" it overlooked a black Democrat. We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Tweet by the Rev. William Barber on Feb. 20, 2020.

Email correspondence with Martha Waggoner, spokeswoman for Rev. William Barber.

Stories by The News & Observer, "Marcus Williams wants ‘bully pulpit’ to blast GOP policies," posted Feb. 23, 2016; "Senate candidate Ernest Reeves calls for FDR-style public works program," posted Fe. 20, 2016. 

Story by WUNC, "An introduction to the four NC Democrats running for US Senate," posted Feb. 26, 2016.

Campaign finance records showing coordinated expenditures between the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Kay Hagan in 2008 on the Federal Election Commission website.

Story by the Greensboro News & Record, "Lewis backs Marshall for Senate," posted May 19 2010.

Story by the Wilmington Star News, "Democratic Senate candidates in N.C. debate on TV," posted April 15, 2010.

Story by The American Prospect, "Is the Southern Strategy dead?" posted Oct. 24, 2008.

Official US Senate primary election results on the North Carolina elections board website.

Stories by Indyweek, "Neal vs. Hagan," posted April 16, 2008; and "Straight from the donkey’s mouth: Marcus Williams," posted March 31, 2010.

Election race details on OurCampaigns.com.

Website for Marcus Williams, WilliamsHouseUSA.com

Stories by Politico, "Dems set their sights on North Carolina," posted May 26, 2008, and "Marshall wins NC Senate nomination," posted June 22, 2010.

Story by NC Policy Watch, "State legislator joins Senate race," posted Oct. 31, 2007.

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Rev. Barber slams DSCC for overlooking black candidates in NC Senate primaries

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