As important as throwing Donald Trump out of the Oval Office is this coming November, the epic quest for the presidency is not the Democratic Party’s only priority for 2020. The Republican grip on the U.S. Senate for the past six years has crippled efforts towards enacting progressive legislation, and if a future President Biden wants to implement any part of his agenda, the Democrats need to win back the smaller chamber of Congress.
According to political analysts, practically every path the Democrats have towards a Senate majority runs through North Carolina.
As one Democratic strategist put it: “If one party does well here, then it bodes well for how they’re doing nationally.” The Republican and Democratic establishments both seem to agree with this assessment; the Senate race in the Tar Heel State is the most expensive in the country, with both parties pouring unprecedented quantities of cash into winning over North Carolinian voters.
Not only is the race expensive, but it is eye-waveringly close.
The most recent survey of the state (conducted by East Carolina University) has the Republican incumbent ahead by only 1%, but Real Clear Politics’ polling average shows the Democratic challenger up by the same razor-thin margin.
If he wants to hold onto his job, Senator Thom Tillis will have to walk a difficult tightrope in the coming months. North Carolina has swung back and forth over the past few elections in both federal and statewide elections.
The state’s rural communities are a key part of Trump’s base and value loyalty to Trump and the Republican Party above all else.
However, the most crucial demographic in the election consists of suburban voters around cities like Raleigh and Charlotte. These voters are traditionally conservative, but many have been turned away from the Republican Party thanks to the behavior of Trump. Tillis must strike a difficult balance; if he portrays himself as too pro-Trump, he will alienate many suburbanites, but if he criticizes the Republican Party’s central figure he will face the wrath of the base.
Throughout his tenure in the Senate, Tillis has struggled to maintain that balance. In his early years in office he was adept at throwing red meat to his base – for example, he supported slashing public health regulations in the name of cutting so-called red tape and boosting the free market. These days he sings a very different tune, supporting the stay-at-home orders of North Carolina’s Democratic governor – going against many in his own party.
His balancing act is not helped by Donald Trump’s mercurial nature.
Tillis’ occasional criticism of some of the President’s more delusional ideas has made him a target for booing at campaign rallies, and Trump has sent decidedly mixed messages about Tillis to his supporters. In one January rally, Trump both complimented and threatened the senator in a single sentence: “We had a good relationship, but we sort of disagreed on a couple minor policies. That’s okay. Of course, I won’t put up with it for long, Thom Tillis!”
North Carolina State Senator Cal Cunningham, by contrast, has the enthusiastic support of his party’s leadership. Cunningham – who won his March 3rd primary handily, despite a tough campaign against progressive candidate Erica Smith – is exactly the kind of candidate that the Democratic Party elite loves.
He is a lawyer; he has climbed the political ladder from a Capitol Hill internship to his current role; he is an Army veteran with tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt; and, perhaps most importantly, his political positions are pretty bland (he supports expanding the Patient Protection Act, but not Medicare for All, he opposes offshore drilling, but does not support the Green New Deal).
Cunningham enjoys the support of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and the vast resources at their disposal; before the March 3rd primary, his campaign actually out-raised Sen. Tillis significantly. Democratic strategists are hoping that Cunningham’s neoliberal positions – along with the presence of Joe Biden at the top of the Democratic ticket – will be decisive in winning over North Carolina’s significant population of undecided voters.
Helping the Democrats along are recent events that have thrown a wrench in the plans of the Republicans. North Carolina’s other U.S. Senator, Republican Richard Burr, put himself at the center of a national scandal by using secret briefings he received about the impact of the coronavirus to enrich himself through insider trading. Burr has already stepped down from his position as the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and is facing mounting pressure to resign.
Burr’s misdeeds have put Tillis in a difficult position.
The case against Burr immediately became politicized by Republican party officials, who demanded that Tillis support his colleague “100%,” despite the clear evidence of wrongdoing. At the same time, blindly supporting Burr would make Tillis complicit in the kind of corruption that voters across the political spectrum despise, tanking his chances with the very voters he needs to win over.
Republican operatives have argued that voters will not connect the two Republican senators while in the voting booth, but this argument is flimsy at best.
Tillis is one of the least well-known senators (almost a third of his constituents do not know who he is) and his emergence into the national spotlight in the context of a corruption scandal cannot be good for him, especially in an election that is widely viewed as a referendum on Trump and the Republican Party.
Despite the scandal, Cunningham’s victory is by no means assured – a fact pointed to by continually close polling margins. Both parties have invested more in North Carolina’s race than any other Senate race in the country – a combined $47 million has flowed from Super PACs into the state.
Turnout will be pivotal. Incumbent Democratic Governor Roy Cooper won by a slim margin four years ago, and is now seeking reelection. His victory proved that Democrats could still be competitive in the Tar Heel State in major races.
Now Cunningham hopes to build on that success and recapture the seat that was once held by Kay Hagan, who passed away last year.