Though the public option's current prospects for passage in Washington remain dim, the proposal appears to be turning into a new rallying cry for liberal Senate hopefuls. North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who is looking to challenge Republican Senator Richard Burr, has become one of two Democratic Senate candidates to sign onto a letter from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee urging the Senate to pass the public option through reconciliation in the current reform bill. The other is progressive favorite Bill Halter, who has issued a high-profile primary challenge to Senator Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas.
“She came out early for the public option and believes that a strong public option is probably the best way to expand coverage and keep the cost of health care from coming up,” Marshall campaign consultant Thomas Mills tells Mother Jones. “She continues to believe that this is the best way to handle reform.”
Marshall, in fact, had kicked off her campaign efforts last October by circulating a petition in support of the government-run health plan. Like Halter in Arkansas, Marshall is also something of a Democratic insurgent, having been snubbed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who chose to support another Democratic candidate—former state senator Cal Cunningham—to run in the primary instead. “At no time did the Senate leadership meet with Secretary Marshall,” said Mills, calling the moving "irresponsible."
But Marshall could also stand to benefit from being the outside challenger. Though Cunningham has generally supported the Democratic reform plan, he has yet to become a vocal advocate for the public option. Marshall, by contrast, has not only endorsed the public plan, but also progressive financial reforms like the Consumer Financial Protection Agency—a regulatory body that would provide robust independent oversight for consumers, if it were passed in its strongest form. She’s an unapologetically progressive candidate in a state where Obama managed to squeak past McCain in 2008*—the same year that liberal groups helped challenger Kay Hagan oust Elizabeth Dole for the state’s other Senate seat. Having secured a comfortable lead over Cunningham, Marshall has already begun to appear on the national radar by receiving the backing of feminist stalwarts like the National Organization for Women. And Marshall’s outspoken views could help her make up for a fundraising gap by exciting the netroots who’ve poured over $1 million so far into Halter’s insurgent campaign.
Such funds and excitement might make for a competitive race in a swing state that still has a broad base of Democratic support. Though Burr still has a double-digit lead over his Democratic challengers, his woefully low approval rating has prompted Public Policy Polling to categorize him as one of the most endangered Republican incumbents, and the North Carolina Democratic Party has already started launching attack ads against the senator. Momentum for an upset could end up building in the state—and Marshall has the real potential to appeal to a broad fundraising base outside of it.
*Correction: The original post had misstated Obama's margin of victory in 2008.