“As Goes North Carolina,
So Goes the Senate”

First-term Sen. Thom Tillis’s campaign ad branding opponent Cal Cunningham as not trustworthy.

By Jim Ellis

Oct. 22, 2020 — It looked like North Carolina Democratic US Senate nominee Cal Cunningham was building a strong lead over first-term Sen. Thom Tillis (R) as the two candidates headed into October after what had already been a long campaign. Though the revelations coming forth at that time about extra-marital affairs that Cunningham was having didn’t immediately affect the campaign’s course to a great degree, we are now seeing significant movement in Tillis’ direction.

Since the end of September until last week, 18 polls were conducted of the Tar Heel State Senate race and Cunningham was averaging a lead of just under six percentage points. This included a range of a 13-point spread in one survey (Hart Research Associates; Sept. 24-27; 400 likely North Carolina voters, live interview — Cunningham, 54 percent; Tillis 41 percent) all the way to Tillis’s one-point edge (East Carolina University; Oct. 2-4; 1,232 likely North Carolina voters, interactive voice response system & an online panel — Tillis 47 percent; Cunningham 46 percent).

A new series of four polls, from a quartet of individual survey research entities, find the Cunningham lead being cut by almost two-thirds, down to just over two points. The most recent survey, from Ipsos/Reuters (Oct. 14-20; 660 likely North Carolina voters, online interview) projects that the two candidates are tied at 47 percent apiece.

Much of the reasoning behind the movement back toward Tillis’ direction is associated with the Cunningham affairs and how the two campaigns have handled the scandal. Cunningham has stopped holding virtual events and refuses to answer questions about whether there are more women than the two situations that have been already identified. In the one news availability that he held for reporters since the extra-marital scandal broke, Charlotte television reporters stressed several times that the candidate refused to answer four separate times whether he is involved with more women.

The Tillis campaign is taking a different approach, and the ad they just started running is linked above. Cunningham has not changed his advertising message, though with a $28 million haul in just the third quarter, some $22 million more than Sen. Tillis raised during the same interval, he certainly has the resources to be able to develop new messages in order to reverse the current campaign trajectory.

It has become public that one of the women with whom he was having an affair is the wife of a soldier. Cunningham is an Army reserve officer, and the service is now conducting an investigation as to whether the relationship was active while he was on duty. If so, this would constitute a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

The Tillis campaign has seized upon this angle and now has four veterans telling the story with the ad theme that the voters cannot “trust Cal Cunningham.”

North Carolina Senate races are always volatile affairs. In fact, this state’s electorate has defeated more incumbents than any other domain in the Union during the modern political era. Since 1974, only two people have been re-elected to the Senate from the Tar Heel State, former Sen. Jesse Helms, and current incumbent Richard Burr. All other individuals serving during this long 46-year period have served one term, either because they were defeated for re-election (most of them), or because they chose not to run because they knew their chances of achieving victory were either minimal or non-existent.

Therefore, having North Carolina as one of the Republican firewall states to keep the majority puts the party leadership in a tenuous position. That’s why we will continue to see a great deal of attention being paid to the North Carolina race, because it is very likely that this is the “tell state” with regard to which party will control the Senate in the next Congress.

Should Sen. Tillis win re-election, Republicans will have a much stronger chance of holding their majority. Should Cunningham hold on and culminate his almost two-year long challenge campaign with a victory, the Democrats will very likely take the Senate majority. Thus, it is quite probable that, “so goes North Carolina, so goes the Senate.”

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