In a different year, the race might seem humdrum: a Republican boasting about jobs and the economy pitted against a Democrat promising better healthcare.
But this is 2020, and few things are run-of-the-mill, including the tight, high-profile competition for a U.S. Senate seat between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.
Congress doesn’t always hang in the balance.
“I just think everybody recognizes that this is going to be the most expensive race, probably in the country, just because of the tightness of North Carolina in terms of its political dynamics” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College. “Certainly, I think the Senate hinges on how this particular race goes.”
If party nominee Joe Biden wins the presidency, Democrats will need to net three seats to gain a Senate majority, since the vice president has a tie-breaking vote. If President Donald Trump wins, they’ll need four. In either scenario, the Democrats have their sights trained on North Carolina, where most polls aggregated by FiveThirtyEight show the two candidates tied or Cunningham with a single digit lead.
Both candidates have stuck to the conventional party playbooks while targeting the sliver of swing voters that could decide the outcome of this election — and the future of the Senate.
Tillis, 60, was elected in 2014, ousting Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. His campaign emphasizes humble beginnings: in one Youtube advertisement, Tillis describes how he moved throughout the South as a kid.
“Growing up in trailer parks and rental homes, Senator Tillis understands what so many are going through right now, which is why he’ll never stop fighting to revive our economy and get North Carolinians back to work,” Alex Nolley, Tillis’s campaign spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
According to The Charlotte Observer, Tillis left home at 17 before going on to work at the prestigious accounting and consulting firm Price Waterhouse and IBM.
From 2007 to 2015, he represented District 98 in the North Carolina House of Representatives. In the last four years of his tenure, he served as Speaker of the House.
As the state’s junior senator, Tillis has vacillated between opposing and supporting President Trump, said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for The Cook Political Report.
Take Tillis’s response to Trump’s declaration of a national emergency over illegal immigration across the Mexican-American border in 2019. Initially, Tillis said he would vote against the declaration, but he later backtracked and voted for it — a “cautionary tale” for other Republican incumbents contemplating breaking with the president, Taylor said.
“The damage was done,” she said.
Now, Tillis faces the difficult balancing act of shoring up the Trump base while distancing himself from unpopular aspects of the president’s policies, particularly his response to the coronavirus crisis. During a recent Trump rally in Winston-Salem, Tillis stood out for wearing a mask. The president and many of his supporters went without.
“Tillis is trying to walk the Donald Trump tightrope,” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “Not distancing himself from Trump, but also not giving full-throated defense of the more radical parts of the Trump agenda.”
Tillis has doubled down on his track record regarding the economy, including his support for the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program for small businesses — with the hope of portraying himself as a “common-sense fiscal conservative,” as his campaign website labels him.
His campaign also paints Cunningham as a far-left candidate of the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.
“His radical liberal agenda of making it easier to sue police officers, enabling sanctuary cities, injecting the Green New Deal into COVID-19 legislation and increasing government control of our healthcare system, proves that Cunningham is nothing but a rubber-stamp for Chuck Schumer’s extreme liberal agenda,” Nolley wrote.
Cunningham, 47, has worked to portray himself as the kind of moderate Democrat swing voters in North Carolina can trust, highlighting his small-town origins and his military service.
He grew up in Lexington and earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law. After 9/11, Cunningham entered the Army Reserve and was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Deployed to Iraq, he oversaw the army’s largest court martial jurisdiction, earning a Bronze Star Medal and the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award, according to his campaign website.
“He really kind of is a candidate from central casting,” said Steven Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University. “He’s got the military background. He’s got his classic rural North Carolina accent. … I think people are able to project onto Cunningham what they want to.”
Cunningham was elected to the State Senate in 2000. He later worked as an attorney at Wallace & Graham, a firm with practice areas that include workers’ compensation, personal injury and class action cases, and at Kilpatrick Stockton, where he focused on commercial litigation. He has also worked as vice president of a waste management company called Waste Zero, a role that has provoked negative Republican advertising.
Healthcare is a common talking point for Cunningham: he wants to lower prescription drug costs, guarantee coverage for preexisting conditions and expand Medicaid.
“One of the most frequent issues Cal hears about when he talks to North Carolinians is the need to improve access and bring down the cost of healthcare for families — made more urgent during the COVID-19 crisis as hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians are out of work and uninsured,” Aaron Simpson, Cunningham’s press secretary, wrote in an email.
“Instead of doing right by the people he should serve, [Tillis] has spent the past six years caving over and over to the corruption in Washington and the corporate special interests bankrolling him,” Simpson wrote.
Senate races are always expensive, but this one particularly so: outside spending groups, including PACs and SuperPACs, have already funnelled nearly $50 million into this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This race has attracted more outside spending than any other Congressional race; for context, outside groups have spent around $40 million on the Senate contest in Iowa, the next most expensive race in terms of outside spending.
Earlier this year, Cunningham had trailed Tillis in finances. But in the second quarter of 2020 his campaign nearly tripled Tillis’s fundraising, smashing a record for the amount of money raised by a North Carolina Senate candidate in a quarter, according to The News & Observer.
As of June 30, Tillis’s campaign raised about $13.7 million and spent $7.3 million, while Cunningham raised roughly $14.8 million and spent about $8.2 million.
“I think that there should be no surprise that Cal Cunningham would raise a great deal of money from North Carolina and beyond it. That was always in the cards,” said John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation and president of the John William Pope Foundation.
“That was one of the explicit reasons why some Democrats endorsed him early, so he can raise the funds necessary to be competitive in this important race.”
The race plays out in a state characterized by increasing polarization and a schism between rural and urban areas, characteristics that make North Carolina a microcosm of national politics.
Urban areas, like Mecklenburg County and Durham County, are strongholds for the Democrats, while rural counties remain solidly Republican, said Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina political consultant and columnist. Neither base will budge.
“It would take a nuclear blast to fracture either one,” Wrenn said.
Then there are the suburbs, home to many of the state’s unaffiliated or independent voters. Coveted by both candidates, these swing voters could decide the outcome of this razor-thin election, Wrenn said. So could young people.
“For the time being, we’re kind of still a center, lean-right state, but if voters under the age of 40 show up in relative political strength, we could be a pure toss-up, slightly lean Democratic state,” Bitzer said.
One thing’s for sure: as a tumultuous year unfolds, this race — and the state — will continue to be in flux.
“I think 2020 is kind of an inflection point for this state, for the country, as a whole,” Bitzer said.