RALEIGH, N.C. -- Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham will settle their campaign rivalry in a head-to-head runoff, with neither able to dominate the vote in a crowded primary election that drew lackluster turnout Tuesday.
Marshall, North Carolina's secretary of state for more than a decade, led with 37 percent in unofficial returns Tuesday night. Cunningham, an Army veteran and former state senator who drew the support of the party's Washington establishment, trailed by 10 percentage points. Chapel Hill attorney Ken Lewis was in third with 17 percent.
The winner of the runoff next month will face Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who easily defeated his three challengers.
"I am honored to have received my party's nomination," Burr said in a statement. "However, this is just the beginning and it will be a long road to November."
Marshall, Cunningham and Lewis each spent more than $300,000 trying to woo voters and distinguish themselves in a crowd of a half-dozen candidates.
The North Carolina race for U.S. Senate has been closely watched since the Democrats ousted Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole two years ago. Though the GOP has been gaining momentum nationwide and expanded the map to target Democratic seats, the Democrats still believe Burr is vulnerable.
Burr, who spent the day in Washington, has seen weaker approval numbers than Dole did at this stage in 2008. An Elon University survey released in April showed that 37 percent of those interviewed approved of how Burr is handling his job. About 28 percent disapproved, while 35 percent didn't know.
The same poll showed that 69 percent of state adults said they disapproved of the way Congress was doing its job. Voters on Tuesday echoed some of those sentiments but many Republicans said they still voted for Burr.
Rey Arias, 56, a Republican restaurant owner in Cary, said he voted for the incumbent because he likes what Burr is doing in Washington and is worried about the direction of the country.
"I'm not really fond of the way our country is going with all the taxes," said Arias, who grew up in Cuba.
Despite polls indicating voter discontent with Congress, there was scant mobilization at the polls. On Tuesday night, the state elections officials projected turnout to be slightly above 2006 levels, when only 12 percent of voters cast a primary ballot.
Democrats were divided about their choices.
Jeanne Sumpter, a 66-year-old retired nurse from Raleigh, praised Marshall's work but said she believes Cunningham has the best chance to beat Burr because of his background in the Army and as a lawmaker. Kim Truitt walked into the same precinct just a few minutes later with a different outlook: She wanted to see more cooperation in the Senate and thought Marshall could foster that on the job.
"Women seem to be more conciliatory and interested in working on a team," said Truitt, 55, who was laid off as a technical writer for IBM last year. She also cited Marshall's track record and said Cunningham is "kind of an unknown quantity at this point."
Besides the Senate primaries, North Carolina was holding several U.S. House primaries and contests for legislative and judicial seats on Tuesday.
Marshall has been secretary of state since 1997 and unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2002. She's been critical of Obama's plan to add troops in Afghanistan and aired ads highlighting her experience in government.
Cunningham, who served in Iraq as an Army prosecutor, has already been airing ads targeting Burr. He's staked out a moderate position, criticizing President Barack Obama's handling of the national debt while encouraging a new offensive to target the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Lewis, a political rookie who has cast himself as the best agent for change, is an attorney who has worked with community development groups.
Three other candidates were also on the ballot: attorney Marcus Williams, teacher Ann Worthy and Susan Harris.