North Carolina is guaranteed to be one of the most competitive and closely-watched states in November. Despite a slight Republican lean, it is a competitive state that, since narrowly voting for Barack Obama in 2008 after a 32-year Republican winning streak, has been closely fought since. It will be a crucial state in the Presidential race, with Republicans opting to hold their convention in Charlotte, the state’s most populous city and America’s second largest banking centre.
It is also home to a Senate race that might be critical in determining who will control the Senate come January 2021 and thus help determine what sort of Congress the President will face. Republican Senator Thom Tillis is running for re-election, and is neck and neck with Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham in the polls.
But US politics changes quickly, and there is growing speculation that both of North Carolina’s Senate seats might be up for grabs in November.
The last time the Class 2 Senate seat was up for election was in 2014, when Democratic incumbent, the late Kay Hagan, sought to defend the seat from the Republicans. Hagan had, rather comfortably, won the seat in 2008 in a strongly Democratic national climate, defeating Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole. The 2008 election was the first time in US history where a woman had defeated an incumbent woman in a Senate election in a race that received national attention for an attack ad Dole ran against Hagan that attacked her with the false implication that she was an atheist, provoking sharp backlash and a surge of donations to Hagan from irreligious and non-Christian communities.
In 2014, Thom Tillis, then-Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, sought and won the Republican nomination. Buoyed by a national climate heavily favourable to Republican candidates, Tillis overcame a noticeable deficit in the polls and, in an upset, narrowly defeated Hagan. Hagan, who had long been touted as a strong candidate for a comeback attempt, sadly died in 2019, having fallen ill from Powassan virus that she contracted from a tick bite.
Tillis is a conservative who as Speaker had pushed a tax cut-heavy programme, passed a law requiring women to seek an ultrasound before they could get an abortion, and as a candidate had questioned regulations such as minimum wage laws. Soon after being elected, he attracted mockery for arguing, in an anti-business regulation speech, that businesses such as restaurants should not be compelled by the government to make employees wash their hands, and that free market incentives should be used to encourage businesses to adopt such policies.
At the start of the Trump era, Tillis did break with the Trump administration on a few issues. He displayed a willingness to negotiate with Democrats on the contentious issue of immigration and on protecting the Mueller investigation. He earned particular ire, however, from Trump loyalists for publicly coming out against Trump’s decision to fund a border wall through the declaration of a national emergency at the US-Mexico border. Opposing the decision as executive overreach, Tillis faced considerable blowback from fellow Republicans, and a week later, when Democrats put forward a motion to reverse the emergency declaration, Tillis sided with Trump. Since then he has voted overwhelmingly with the official White House position.
Ultimately being an unblinking Trump loyalist is the key requirement to win a Republican nomination in this day and age, and Tillis’s flip-flopping over the emergency declaration had made him vulnerable to a primary challenge. Several Trump-aligned US Representatives were speculated about as potential Tillis challengers, but ultimately the biggest threat came from a wealthy self-funding businessman, Garland Tucker. Despite both men endorsing other candidates in the 2016 Presidential primary, Tucker and Tillis were both trying to position themselves as greater Trump loyalists. But it was Tillis’s defence of the President during the impeachment inquiry, and Trump’s decision to endorse via Twitter all Senate incumbents, that ended up depriving Tucker of the oxygen needed to mount a sustainable campaign. Tucker withdrew, and Tillis won renomination relatively unopposed.
His Democratic opponent will be former State Senator Cal Cunningham. Cunningham, a veteran and lawyer, who had served for two years in the North Carolina State Senate from 2001 to 2003, received the support of much of the Democratic establishment, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In the primary election Cunningham comfortably defeated Erica D. Smith, an incumbent three-term State Senator seen to Cunningham’s left, including backing proposals such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Smith had raised less than $300,000 and failed to secure prominent endorsements, and ultimately failed to gain much support in the state outside of her home region in northeastern North Carolina.
Republicans had tried to game the Democratic primary – as part of a tactic both parties indulge in where they try to make a candidate perceived as less electable win the opposing party’s nomination, or at least eat up resources and leave the ultimate victor battered and bruised. The Faith and Power PAC, a campaigning group affiliated to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and with secretive donors, spent millions on the race, running ads that attacked Cunningham from the left and touted Smith as “the only proven progressive”. Both candidates condemned the intervention, Smith disavowing the PAC’s support, and Cunningham’s argument that he was a more electable and pragmatic brand of progressive ultimately won him the primary.
Cunningham has been polling relatively well with Tillis, tying or slightly leading in most recent polls. He’s not seen as a top-tier candidate, but the Democratic bench in North Carolina is rather thin, with most of the “big” names focused instead of winning or retaining statewide offices. Cunningham, too, does not have much in the way of proven electoral success, having never won a statewide election, a difficult task in a state as demographically, politically and economically diverse as North Carolina.
Cunningham’s most notable strength so far, however, is in the realm of fundraising. While Tillis starts with a notable cash-on-hand advantage, Cunningham has been able to outraise Tillis significantly – by over £3 million in the first quarter of 2020. With North Carolina an expensive state and one that will attract significant Presidential investment, this is an important advantage to have. A key part of this race, however, will be who has the momentum in the state at the Presidential level. If Biden wins North Carolina, for example, it’s hard to imagine
North Carolina will be one of the states to watch in November in more ways than one. Not only is it home to a competitive Senate race and is one of the most important states in the Presidential election, but it is home to a potentially competitive gubernatorial race (though Democratic incumbent Roy Cooper currently is a strong favourite) and a newly redrawn House map after the previous Republican gerrymander was struck down in the courts.
Tillis’s fellow Republican Senator, Richard Burr, might also soon be facing insurmountable pressure to resign, potentially creating another vacancy. The next article will look at Burr.
Gianni Sarra is a PhD candidate at King’s College London. He is a recipient of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership studentship award and his doctoral research is on ‘The Dirty Rules Dilemma: Achieving Justice in Conditions of Corruption’.