Scramble for the Senate: North Carolina
Scramble for the Senate: North Carolina

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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