North Carolina’s all-important 2020 Senate race, explained

The road to a Democratic Senate majority runs through North Carolina. Democrats hope former state lawmaker and

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The road to a Democratic Senate majority runs through North Carolina.

Democrats hope former state lawmaker and military prosecutor Cal Cunningham can topple Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who is up for his first reelection since his win in 2014.

“North Carolinians know Thom Tillis, and they have very strong negative views about him, about his service, about the things he has chosen to pursue in office on issue after issue of importance to North Carolinians,” Cunningham told me in a recent interview. “He has either capitulated to the partisan pressures or walked in line with corporate special interests.”

Everybody I spoke to expects an extraordinarily tight Senate race. The outcome could very well decide which party controls the Senate in 2021, going by the Sabato’s Crystal Ball ratings. Assuming Democrats lose in the Alabama Senate race but win in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine — which forecasters say is a fairly likely scenario — then they just need a win in either North Carolina or Iowa. With one of those toss-up states, by Sabato’s reckoning, Democrats can secure 50 Senate seats.

Cal Cunningham speaks to supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina, on March 3.
Gerry Broome/AP

The last three presidential elections have been decided in North Carolina by less than 4 percentage points; Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are the only Democratic presidential candidates to win in the modern era. And despite Trump’s triumph here in 2016, Democrat Roy Cooper won that same year, becoming one of two Democratic governors in the South.

And 2020 looks as though it’ll be no different. Biden leads Trump by less than a point in the Real Clear Politics polling average; Cunningham is polling 4.4 points ahead of Tillis. That polling gap between Trump and Tillis is one reason for Democratic optimism; if an incumbent senator runs behind his party’s president, he seems to have some problems with the conservative base as well as persuadable voters.

But Tillis’s campaign is spending the final weeks of the race trying to erode Cunningham’s advantage by portraying him as a partisan Democrat.

North Carolina was already going to be one of the most fiercely contested Senates races of the year. Now, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and Republicans pledging to replace her in the middle of the campaign, the stakes of a Senate majority have never been clearer.

North Carolina has, like most southern states, undergone a fundamental political realignment in the last 50 years. Conservative Democrats have mostly left that party behind and many have joined the Republicans. At the same time, young people make up a growing percentage of the electorate, and while they officially register as unaffiliated, they tend to be more progressive in their politics.

By voter registration numbers, the state is neatly divided in thirds among Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated voters. But most of those unaffiliated voters are actually reliable votes for one party or the other. Instead, according to the political scientists and strategists I spoke with, North Carolina looks more like this: 45 percent Republican voters, 45 percent Democratic voters, and 10 percent truly persuadable swing voters.

So any winning coalition in the state starts with turning out as many voters in your 45 percent as you can — and then winning that small percentage of persuadable voters and ticket splitters.

Where are those gettable voters? The suburbs.

Urban voters overwhelmingly back Democratic candidates (Hillary Clinton won 66 percent of the central city vote in 2016, according to Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer, who writes at Old North State Politics). Rural voters are reliable votes for the Republicans, with Trump commanding a 21-point edge there over Clinton.

That leaves the suburbs as the most important battleground. But Bitzer distinguishes between two different kinds of suburbs, which are pivotal in distinct ways.

Urban county suburbs are closer to their city centers, contained within the same county borders. These areas were decided by a thin margin in 2016: Clinton won them by 1 point, GOP Sen. Richard Burr took them by 3 points on his way to reelection, and Cooper by 4. These are moderate, sometimes ticket-splitting voters, and they helped Burr and Cooper win those races for their respective parties.

The surrounding county suburbs are a little farther out from the city and tend to be more solidly Republican. Trump won 65 percent of the vote in those places and Burr won 63 percent. But even a slight underperformance there by Republicans can make a difference: Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory won 61 percent of this exurban vote, a notch lower than Trump and Burr, when he lost to Cooper. Paired with Cooper’s edge in the urban suburbs, that was just enough to give the Democrat the statewide win.

In order to beat Tillis, Cunningham needs similarly strong performances in those areas. The suburbs have been shifting toward Democrats in the Trump era, powering their big wins in the 2018 midterms, and they are an absolute must-have for the party in this state.

“If North Carolina’s suburbs are acting like the national narrative, those urban suburbs are probably going to shift and the Republican margin in the surrounding suburbs is going to shrink,” Bitzer told me.

Democratic odds would be aided by strong turnout among younger voters and Black voters. Registration by voters in the millennial and Gen Z cohorts has been strong throughout 2020. But Democratic-leaning voters have not always turned out as reliably as Republican voters: A higher percentage of Democratic and unaffiliated voters registered in 2016 but failed to vote compared to Republicans, according to Bitzer’s research.

The pandemic is the other X-factor. North Carolina is a state with a robust vote-by-mail and early voting apparatus, so the state’s voters are already comfortable with those procedures. As of late August, 710,000 mail ballots had been requested. At the same point in the 2016 cycle, only 40,000 voters had asked for a mail-in ballot. More than half of the ballot requests so far in 2020 are from Democrats, whereas in 2016 the parties were evenly split.

But Bitzer cautioned against reading too much into that data. Mail-in ballots might just be an expression of the hardened opinions of partisan voters who have already made up their minds. These could simply be early votes that would have been made regardless, they’re just coming in early because of Covid-19.

“I’m still of an opinion that Covid is the great unknown at this point,” Bitzer said. “It could be the true partisans who are banking their ballots now.”

That would leave the persuadable voters to be fought over in the last few weeks of the campaign. Both sides think they have a strategy for winning them.

Cunningham has the profile of many Democrats who won competitive races in the 2018 midterms: He’s a veteran and former military prosecutor who served two active-duty tours in Iraq. He served one term in the North Carolina State Senate in the early 2000s, worked for various law firms and a waste reduction company over the years, and he ran for the US Senate in 2010 but lost the Democratic primary in a runoff. Cunningham is also, as he will readily remind reporters and voters, a lifelong North Carolinian.

His campaign strategy is neatly captured in how he’s run on Covid-19. In his interview with Vox, he pointed out that the United States is capable of coming together for the national good — just not, apparently, for Covid-19.

“If it had been a terrorist attack, there would have been an address to the nation, probably to a joint session of Congress. There would not have been a hesitation to invoke things like the Defense Production Act,” Cunningham said in late August. “There would have been clear communication from the top to every corner of America about how we fight that enemy. Here, we were told it was a hoax.”

It was a plea for unity, one that could be effective with moderate voters and not unlike the message often heard from Biden when he’s speaking to that part of the electorate.

Cunningham mostly leaves Trump out of it. He said instead that he is “incredibly laser-focused on Senator Tillis and the role a senator should play in a moment like this.”

Cunningham contrasted Tillis with Sen. Tom Cotton, a resolute conservative and Trump ally who still warned about the need to prepare for the worst after sitting in on a classified briefing in January about the Covid-19 threat. In Cunningham’s telling, Cotton was an example of a Republican urging vigilance early on, despite the Trump administration’s reluctance to acknowledge the severity of the coronavirus outbreak.

“My guy, the person I hold accountable in this race, was not one of them,” Cunningham argued to me. “He has demonstrated an unwillingness and an inability to ask the tough questions when a US senator, in a coequal branch of government, should be doing exactly that.”

Cal Cunningham needs a strong turnout from suburban voters to beat Tillis.
Gerry Broome/AP

So when given the chance, he decided to forgo any more direct criticisms of Trump and instead stayed “laser-focused” on his Republican opponent. That is the strategy that Democratic operatives and independent observers believe will serve him best as he zeroes in on the persuadable 10 percent of the North Carolina electorate.

“I think he is playing a classic middle of the road [card], focusing on issues like health care, more so than the ‘I’m not in Donald Trump’s camp’ card,” Bitzer said. “Voters already know that. There’s a clean delineation in this state with the two parties, I don’t think he needs to clear that up.”

Cunningham has instead hammered Tillis over health care, both before and during the Covid-19 pandemic.

North Carolina is one of 12 states that hasn’t expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, leaving more than 200,000 people without access to affordable health insurance. Tillis, who was speaker of the state house from 2011 to 2015, bears significant responsibility for that fact; in 2013, the state legislature passed a bill explicitly forbidding a governor from unilaterally expanding Medicaid.

That meant when Cooper became governor in 2017, having run on expanding Medicaid, he was unable to enact his top agenda item. Even though Tillis had left for the US Senate in 2015, his actions as a leader in the North Carolina House are still being felt to this day — and Cunningham wants voters to know that.

“North Carolinians, in particular, are more vulnerable than most to the public health crisis. We have one of the highest rates of uninsured because we didn’t expand Medicaid. ... We know why we did that. Tillis proudly takes credit for that,” Cunningham told me. “Today, almost 1.3 million out of 10 million people in my state can’t go see a doctor without having to fear what the size of that bill is because they just don’t have coverage.”

Tillis is in a weak position for an incumbent. He’s averaging 42.3 percent support in the Real Clear Politics average, well behind Trump’s 46.6 percent average. A Morning Consult analysis of the race found the senator lagging badly behind Trump with rural voters, with conservative voters, and with 2016 Trump voters. He was also performing worse than Trump with suburban and moderate voters.

Tillis’s record contains something to annoy both the far right and the rigidly centrist. He voted in favor of Obamacare repeal in the Senate, something Cunningham lumps together with Tillis’s opposition to Medicaid expansion in order to blame the senator for the state’s high uninsured rate. Tillis has been working to convince voters he supports protecting people with preexisting conditions despite the fact that the bill he voted for would have stripped those protections.

He also clashed with Trump over the president’s plan for declaring a national emergency along the Mexican border, initially signaling opposition to that plan for fear of the precedent it would set for a future Democratic administration. But he later reversed himself at the last minute and voted to affirm Trump’s plan; Cunningham therefore argues Tillis is unwilling to take principled stands against Trump.

Sen. Thom Tillis is up for his first reelection since his narrow win in 2014.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Cal via Getty Images

“This race is as much about Tillis’s weakness as anything else,” Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in the state, says. “He’s angering both of these voters at the same time. When he backs the president, he sends a signal to the swing voters that he’s not concerned about their issues. But then when he puts a mask on, that’s a direct repudiation of Trump.

“He’s trying to straddle this line, but it’s not working.”

There is an argument to be made Tillis has never been a particularly strong statewide candidate. His slim 2014 win was unimpressive compared to some of the other Republican winners that year. Over 2019, Morning Consult found his approval rating with voters was 34 percent and his disapproval rating was 37 percent.

But nobody believes a Tillis loss is a foregone conclusion. The state’s voters are too evenly divided for a landslide.

“You have to fundamentally respect that North Carolina is a very purple state,” Jackson said.

And Tillis’s campaign and his political consultants believe they have an opening to shake up the race. Their plan relies primarily on convincing those moderate voters that Cunningham is not the reasonable Democrat he’s presenting himself as and is instead a stalking horse for a more radical progressive agenda.

“Cal Cunningham wants to appear to be part of the Democrats of the past, not of the future,” Paul Shumaker, a Republican strategist supporting Tillis’s campaign, told me. “Cal Cunningham has been given a free pass until the last four weeks.”

They have seized on his comments at the first Senate debate in early September, when Cunningham expressed doubts about the veracity of a vaccine approved under the Trump administration. That’s a concern shared by many voters, polls show, but it’s still one that the Tillis camp believes makes Cunningham look like a party-line Democrat.

In the same vein, they have been citing his stated rationale for opposing the most recent Senate Republican Covid-19 relief package — that it was a party-line vote.

“He’s saying something to get elected, anything to get elected,” Tillis said at the debate.

This is the message from Tillis going forward: Cunningham can’t be trusted, and neither can the Democratic Party. The Republican side knows they entered the fall at a disadvantage, after Cunningham had spent much of the spring and summer building up his moderate bona fides with little pushback. But they believe they can turn the race around in the final stretch when that critical 10 percent of persuadable voters will make up their minds.

They have some reason to be optimistic. A lot of the unaffiliated voters are formerly Democrats who are too conservative for the modern party. In 2016, Burr was polling just 2 points ahead of his Democratic opponent but ended up winning by 5 points. There could be a hidden Tillis vote, especially if some of the conservatives currently sour on him come around and support him when they’re filling out their ballot for Trump.

Tillis’s closing argument will likely rest on the Supreme Court fight, which affirms his importance to Republicans as a swing-state senator. Cunningham will continue focusing on health care and his opponent, but not the president.

The two sides have been almost even in fundraising: about $13.7 million for Tillis and $14.8 million for Cunningham. It’s the recipe for a razor-thin race.

“That small percentage [of ticket splitters] can decide an election,” Bitzer said. “But it’s a smaller and smaller slice.”

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