North Carolina Senate race emerges as 2020 bellwether
Sen. Thom Tillis’s (R-N.C.) seat has emerged as a bellwether in the race for control of the Senate.
Over the past week, the two leading Democratic and Republican super PACs focusing on Senate campaigns have poured a combined $47 million into fall advertising reservations in North Carolina, far more than they have invested in any other Senate battleground state.
The influx of spending suggests that operatives on both sides of the aisle see North Carolina, more than any other state, as a must-win in their bids to either flip or retain control of the Senate in November.
At the same time, the outside investments nod at North Carolina’s status as a presidential battleground, where competitive gubernatorial and House races will also be waged and where both parties are expected to incur massive expenses.
“It’s going to be kind of the pivotal race to decide who has the majority in the Senate this fall,” one state Democratic official said, noting that “if one party does well here, then it bodes well for how they’re doing nationally.”
The general election match-up for the Senate was finalized on Super Tuesday when former North Carolina state Sen. Cal Cunningham won the Democratic primary to take on Tillis, beating out a more progressive rival in state Sen. Erica Smith, whom Republicans had sought to boost with nearly $3 million in positive ads.
Polling in the race between Cunningham and Tillis has been scarce since the March 3 primary, but what surveys there are show a close match-up.
An East Carolina University poll conducted in late February found Tillis leading Cunningham by 2 points, while an NBC News-Marist poll fielded days earlier showed Cunningham ahead by 5 points.
Unlike 2018, when the last round of Senate elections were held, Republicans are largely playing defense in 2020, with incumbents in Maine, North Carolina, Arizona and Colorado facing tough reelection bids.
Meanwhile, only one Democratic incumbent, Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.), who scored an upset victory in a 2017 special election, is in serious danger of being ousted.
With the current division of power in the Senate, Democrats need to pick up either three or four seats, depending on which party wins the White House, to capture a majority in the chamber. And while party officials are increasingly confident in their prospects in Colorado and Arizona, the battle in North Carolina is still seen as a true toss-up.
“North Carolina is a swing state in all elections, but now it’s a purple state where the urban areas have become very blue and the rural areas have become really red,” former Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said.
“Senate seats here have historically turned over more than probably any seat in the United States,” he added. “From Republican to Democrat to Republican back to Democrat. We’ve got a long history of very confrontational Senate races.”
Democrats are hoping that changing demographics, particularly an influx of Democratic-leaning professionals, in the suburbs around Charlotte and Raleigh will push them over the finish line in November.
At the same time, some Democrats in the state say that former Vice President Joe Biden, who appears likely to win the party’s presidential nomination, could help Cunningham head off Republican accusations that the Democratic Party has veered too far left.
Republicans, meanwhile, are betting that having President Trump’s name at the top of the ballot will boost their down-ballot candidates, including Tillis. Trump won the state in 2016 over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by more than 3 percentage points.
“Biden will probably help Cunningham with some of the swing votes if he tacks to the center,” McCrory said. But he also noted that Trump’s presence on the ballot will likely be a powerful force for Republicans in North Carolina, as well.
“For those extra voters that came out for Trump, it’s personal,” he said. “And that personal attachment impacts the other federal candidates. And this year I think it’ll be advantageous to Tillis.”
Outside groups also acknowledge the hypercompetitive nature of the North Carolina Senate race.
The Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), announced last week that it had reserved more than $67 million in fall advertising across six states with competitive Senate races, with the largest tranche of that — $21.8 million — going to North Carolina.
A week later, the Senate Majority PAC, the top Democratic super PAC backing Senate candidates, said it had booked $25.6 million in fall advertisements in North Carolina as part of a nearly $70 million investment across five battleground states.
Neither Cunningham or Tillis are heading into the general election campaign with a clear advantage over the other.
Cunningham out-raised Tillis in the weeks leading up to the March 3 Senate primary, bringing in nearly $1.4 million to Tillis’s $700,500. But unlike Tillis, whose only serious primary opponent dropped out of the race in December, Cunningham faced a competitive challenge from Smith, prompting outside groups to spend more than $11 million to boost him.
Tillis also emerged with a sizable cash advantage. His most recent federal filing showed him with $5.4 million in the bank. Cunningham, by comparison, reported about $1.5 million in cash on hand.
But Tillis, a first-term senator who won his 2014 race by less than 2 percentage points, has suffered from relatively low approval ratings. A survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling released last week showed his approval at just 26 percent.
Also complicating the race is the coronavirus outbreak, which has upended political campaigns up and down the ballot.
For Tillis, that means leaning into his official duties as a senator. Andrew Romeo, a spokesperson for his campaign, said that Tillis has been holding daily telephone town halls with constituents, while his campaign has supplemented those efforts with social media and digital initiatives providing updates on the outbreak.
“Sen. Tillis’ priority right now is doing everything he can to protect the physical and economic health of North Carolina and the nation during this crisis, and our campaign is following his lead,” Romeo said.
Likewise, Cunningham has been holding virtual, county-by-county town halls, while his campaign has been sharing updates from Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) office on the virus.
“This has definitely forced us to be more nimble and get creative in the ways we’re communicating with people,” an aide to Cunningham said.