By Jim EllisOct. 7, 2020 — On Friday, it came to light, after the announcement that North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis had been diagnosed with COVID-19, that Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham who has been leading for most of the race is involved in a sexting affair with a married woman. The story was carried heavily in media reports on Friday.
Almost immediately, Public Policy Polling went into the field to assess the damage, and while they find Cunningham still holding the advantage it is half the size of the double-digit margin he enjoyed in the previous two surveys.
The North Carolina Senate race has been heavily studied. Just since Sept. 15, we have seen no less than 13 polls released of this Senate contest with Cunningham leading in all.
The new Public Policy Polling survey (Oct. 4-5; 911 North Carolina voters via interactive voice response system) sees Cunningham holding a 48-42 percent lead over Sen. Tillis. Though the margin is six points, the spread is down significantly from the 13- and 12-point advantages he recorded in the two most recent polls from Hart Research Associates (Sept. 24-27; 400 likely North Carolina voters via live interview) and ALG Research (Sept. 22-28; 822 voters, online), respectively.
The PPP data reveals that Cunningham is taking a hit over the budding scandal. When asked whether “the information about Cal Cunningham having a relationship with a woman who is not his wife make you more or less likely to vote for him, or does it not make a difference,” 37 percent answered they are less likely to support him versus three percent who said they were more inclined. A total of 58 percent said the breaking story would make no difference in how they decide to vote.
The previous question asked whether “the respondents had heard or read anything about Cal Cunningham having a relationship with a woman who is not his wife.” In this instance, 58 percent said they had as compared to 42 percent who said they had not.
With such a substantial number reporting they are unfamiliar with the sexting report, those invoking the negative response are actually a much more significant portion of the informed segment, meaning the negative factor is realistically higher than the 37 percent number suggests. This is undoubtedly the reason that Cunningham’s lead was cut in half on the current survey in comparison to the two previous polls.
The North Carolina Senate data has bounced around for some time, but it was only recently that Cunningham had broken into a consistent double-digit spread. Of the 13 polls conducted since Sept. 15, the Democratic challenger led in all and averaged a 7.2 percent margin.
North Carolina hosts a critical Senate race from a national perspective. In fact, control of the body could well come down to this one seat. Remember that Republicans still hold a 53-47 margin in the current chamber, and that division is expected to grow to 54-46 with an expected GOP conversion in Alabama.
The Democratic road to the majority then begins with holding their two seats in Michigan and Minnesota. The latter state is showing competitive signs, while there is no question the former is a tight contest between Sen. Gary Peters (D) and challenger John James (R).
At this point, the Dems must begin converting Republican seats, meaning winning the three states where they have enjoyed consistent leads: Arizona, Colorado, and Maine. This model also projects that three Republican states come off the competitive board in Kentucky, Kansas, and Texas, and GOP incumbents Joni Ernst (IA) and Steve Daines (MT) win re-election.
If the Democrats convert any one of these five aforementioned states, they will likely capture the majority. If not, Senate control then comes down to North Carolina, South Carolina, and the two Georgia seats. With North Carolina being the most vulnerable of the four, we could well see the Tar Heel State becoming the focal point of which party leads the Senate in the new Congress.
With so much attention being paid to North Carolina’s role in the battle for the Senate, count on seeing a plethora of polls released here in the campaign’s closing month.