I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

You know about the "horse race" in politics, right? It’s a game the media plays wherein they judge candidates on a series of meaningless garbage, like who has a "Jewish problem" or who "best represents the American dream." Basically, it’s a way for the pundits to look smart by picking a winner, the "right answer" if you will, without getting into the messy business of facts and policy. If they’re wrong about the "security moms," aw shucks, that’s the beauty of democracy, but if you’re wrong about empirical data, well, you’re just an idiot. Really it’s more like political bumper bowling than a horse race, but a horse race sounds sophisticated, so we’ve gone with that.

The problem is that candidates don’t actually run in that "horse race." They campaign on their platform of issues. McCain didn’t run against Obama by saying, "My fellow Americans, I’m running for President of the United States because Senator Obama has a Jewish problem." He campaigned on his platform, and voters decided on that. Today in North Carolina, Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham are facing off in the Democratic Senate Primary. So far the media narrative portray the race as some sort of insurgent, underdog candidacy by Marshall against the Beltway moneybags insider, Cunningham. But as always, the horse avoids any real issues, or in this case reality in general, and completely misses the point: It’s all about Afghanistan.

We can, right away, dispel the notion that Elaine Marshall is an outsider, that she’s part of the big 2010 purist partisan purge of incumbents. She’s North Carolina’s Secretary of State, the first woman elected to statewide executive office, so not a stranger to tough politics. She spent a great deal of her time enforcing US trade and copyright law, which is about as far from a lefty grassroots issue as you can get, but it also means working with the federal government at the national level is neither a mystery nor a step up for her. Her opponent on the other hand, Cal Cunningham, hasn’t even held statewide office for nearly a decade. He’s the one in over his head, his reputation only comes from the Big Democrat money he gets from folks like the DSCC.

To find out what’s really going on, we have to look at the candidates’ platforms. These are the talking points you find in campaign mailers, robo-calls, stump speeches, etc. The most boiled down issues you can find are on the candidates’ website.  It’s out there for anyone’s consumption, so the issues there are usually the fundamentals of their campaign. This is the backbone of every boring stump speech and interview they give, and it’s here where we see the real lesson from North Carolina.

Marshall and Cunningham, both being from the same party, have very similar issue platforms, almost to the point of being indistinguishable. Both crap on Wall Street, both are pro-Jobs, they’re big backers of public education, health care reform, clean energy, blah blah blah. All the same. The difference is Afghanistan.

Here’s Elaine Marshall on Afghanistan:

As a former small business owner and attorney in domestic cases, I’ve seen, firsthand, the hardship visited on our families during tough economic times: families disintegrate when there are no jobs, no hope, and no future. Therefore, I agree with President Obama that the nation I’m most interested in rebuilding is our own. The war in Afghanistan, though, is diverting our attention and reducing the resources we need to solve our own problems. here at home.

Shocking, there’s that Jobs vs. Wars stuff again. And just in case you think that’s some sort of recession pandering to the working class, she’s not playing around:

Failed states provide havens and training grounds for terrorists. However, these states have rarely, if ever, been “fixed” by the foreign powers. They have only been made stable by long-term, expensive occupations that, more often than not, eventually fail. That is not the route we should take in Afghanistan. [emphasis added]

People who are voting on her jobs position probably don’t care about fixing other failed states, since from their perspective they’re already in one. But people who care about and vote on foreign policy are concerned about failed states. And when a candidate calls a spade a spade and labels our presence in Afghanistan an occupation instead of some bunco flim-flam about counterinsurgency, it tells you that this person has thoroughly thought out their position on national security.

On the other side we have Cal Cunningham, an Iraq veteran, so you’d think it wouldn’t really be safe to compete with him on national security credentials, right? Nope, here’s Cunningham:

Clearly define and pursue our national security interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by fully implementing counterinsurgency strategy, seizing momentum, protecting the population, allowing no geographic safe-haven for Al Qaeda, building Afghani capacity to secure itself, and turning over the security mission as soon as possible.

There’s the kooky COIN reference, and he still thinks al-Qa’eda is in Afghanistan, so not much of a news junkie, but the saddest part has to be building "Afghani" capacity. Poor guy, I think he means Afghan, as in the people of Afghanistan, and not Afghani, which is the official currency of Afghanistan. It’s a super easy mistake honestly, but it shows he probably wasn’t cracking a lot of books on Central Asia before deciding that slaughtering a bunch of Afghan civilians and American soldiers is an awesome way to "seize momentum" and protect the population.

So he’s completely ignorant on Afghanistan, what about national security?

Develop a specialized civilian corps to complement the uniformed services and provide logistics, civil governance, public works, information technology, and linguist services. This corps must operate under the blanket of U.S. law under a unified chain of command, in place of private contractors.

Genius! Why wasn’t this like the very first executive agency we created back in 1789? Oh wait, it was, we call it the State Department. Now we can forgive Cunningham for not knowing that the State Dept existed or even thinking its purpose is to complement the military, what with all his service in the Iraq war. But this is perfectly illustrative of his national security credentials, or rather the absence of them. The "specialized civilian corps" is a nonsense progressive red meat talking point. Everyone remotely associated with the left from Barack Obama to Dennis Kucinich campaigns on some version of this. It means nothing, it tells us Cunningham doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about, or he does and he’s just being cynical.

Now let’s keep this national security stuff in perspective, this is only the Democratic primary, nobody’s near casting any votes on Afghanistan policy yet. The horse race narrative is that Marshall is the underdog of the base running against the Establishment Democrat Cunningham. What this usually implies is that once the base candidate competes in the general election, they’ll fail because they’re either too far left or too far right.  The conventional wisdom is right, the primary extremist will lose the general election, but in this case the horse race doesn’t match up to reality. Marshall isn’t the outsider purging the insider, she’s the experienced one running against a newbie. And Cunningham is the one spouting lefty wingnut bait, Marshall takes mainstream, non-threatening positions on foreign policy.

And we’re talking about an election where the only issue at stake is Afghanistan, in a year when one of the major issues facing all candidates is Afghanistan, on both sides of the aisle and across the country. North Carolina is no different. Just take a look at these Rasmussen numbers:

The latest Rasmussen Reports statewide telephone survey shows Burr with 50% of the vote when matched against North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall who picks up 32%. Six percent (6%) would vote for some other candidate in this match-up, while 12% of voters are undecided.

Against another Democratic hopeful, former State Senator Cal Cunningham, Burr earns 53% support. Cunningham receives 31% of the vote. Only four percent (4%) would prefer to vote for some other candidate, while 13% are undecided.

These numbers are two weeks old, but we can see that Marshall actually does better in the general election than Cunningham.  Cunningham thought he had it in the bag, what with his strategy of giving in to Obama on Afghanistan and the horse race narrative about his opponent being some outsider wingnut. But the horse race isn’t real, it doesn’t correspond to the numbers in the general or the primary.

How many times are we going to watch this happen in 2010? This isn’t about insider partisan purges and who has beltway money, it’s about stark choices like Jobs vs Wars, or ending the occupation of a failed state vs not knowing what the State Department is or does. It’s very clear, and it’s very mainstream. It doesn’t matter if you’re in progressive California, liberal Massachusetts, or deeply conservative North Carolina, if you take the outsider, radical position and support the war in Afghanistan, you’re toast.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page and collaborate with the tens of thousands of others around the country working to bring this war to an end. Help your local candidates take the mainstream position on Afghanistan, or this year is going to be very, very ugly.