NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, June 19th, 2020

Scramble for the Senate: Can Democrats win in North Carolina with Cal Cunningham?

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!”

Cal Cunningham

State Sen. Cal Cun­ning­ham is run­ning to unseat U.S. Sen­a­tor Thom Tillis (Pho­to: Grayson Bar­nette, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

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