Updated: Jul 2
Welcome to part one of an ongoing series about the most tightly contested U.S. Senate races. This entry focuses on the two candidates running for one of North Carolina’s seats; Cal Cunningham and Thom Tillis. All quotations are from candidates themselves or their campaigns.
Thom Tillis is the current Junior Senator from North Carolina. The 59-year-old was elected to his first term in 2014 defeating Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan by less than 2% of the vote. Tillis was born August 30th, 1960 in Jacksonville, Florida to Margie and Thomas Raymond Tillis. Senator Tillis grew up in a working-class family that was always on the move. He credits his parents with instilling a strong work ethic. His family had very little money so Tillis joined the military. Unfortunately, before basic training, Tillis was injured in a car accident and discharged. He got a job at a technology and information system, quickly moving through the ranks and reaching the title of Partner both IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1990 at the age of 30. He worked in both the marketing and tech sides of each of the companies. Tillis left the private sector completely in 2009 in order to focus on “to focus on the remainder of this legislative session and on [his] role as Chairman of the NC House Republican Caucus Campaign Committee” according to his LinkedIn. In 1997, Tillis received his Bachelor of Science in Technology Management from the University of Maryland University College.
Thom’s first foray into public service was serving as PTA President at his daughter’s High School, a fact he is very vocal about how this contributed to his more positive view of the public-school system than that of other Republicans. He quickly moved through the local government, becoming Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives. While Speaker, Tillis led an effort to, and eventually ban, gay marriage in North Carolina. He also spoke out against the federal measure to legalize Same-sex marriage in 2015, stating his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. 2018 marked a change though. Tillis switched his platform completely, supporting measures to protect couples in Same-sex marriages in states less friendly to LGBTQ+ rights.
Contradictory beliefs and votes have long plagued Senator Tillis. For example, his website paints him as a very moderate Republican. Tillis claims to be a supporter of green energy and public schools. If you look into his actual votes though, there is a stark difference. Tillis is very much a proponent of charter schools and discussed dismantling the Department of Education. When asked at a 2014 Senate debate, he said “We existed for more than a century without one… the first department I’d look at” with regards to cutting the Department of Education. This should not discount the effort Tillis has put into North Carolina’s public university system, teaming up with a bipartisan group of Senators to pass a bill supporting low-income students. Tillis is also a member of the Historically Black College and University Caucus, advocating for HBCUs. He has also flip-flopped in his belief in the scientific fact of climate change, only recognizing its validity, again, in 2018. There are two things that Tillis has remained constant in his views. Tillis is the 4th highest recipient of National Rifle Association funds and has scored an A on their favorability rater. Tillis is also a Pro-Life advocate believing life begins at conception. He claims his greatest achievement has been winning the endorsement of a Pro-Life organization saying “I just received the endorsement of the National Right to Life, and more than anybody else, more than any organization I can think of, I’m proud that they recognize the work that we’ve done to save the lives of the unborn” to the National Journal.
Cal Cunningham is the Democratic nominee attempting to unseat Senator Tillis. If he wins, the 46-year-old will be the 5th occupant of the seat in just 20 years. Cal was born August 6th, 1973 in Winston-Salem North Carolina to Julee and Calvin Cunningham. The elder Calvin has been practicing law since Cal was born and Julee has continued to work at his firm over time. Cunningham studied Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill, getting a Masters in Public Policy at the London School of Economics and his JD at UNC Law School in 1999. He was quickly elected to the State Senate in 2000 only to leave his post after 9/11 to serve in the US Army. Cunningham served two active duty tours, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan earning the Bronze Star (either for meritorious service or combat actions) as well as the Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award (to recognize and sustain effective junior officer leadership in the Army). He reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and still serves in the Army Reserves at Fort Bragg.
While in college, Cunningham interned on Capitol Hill and was mentored by former Michigan senator Carl Levin. At age 27, Cunningham was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly. He served until 2003 when his district was heavily gerrymandered. Instead of running for reelection, Cunningham turned to work for the Governor on multiple task forces including environmental protections, gun violence, the opioid epidemic, and domestic violence. Because he lost his seat in 2003, Cunningham’s voting record is not massive. However, he racked up many major liberal endorsements during the Democratic primary including by Planned Parenthood, the National Education Association, and the Brady Campaign (a gun control organization). After handily defeating his competition in the primary, Cunningham began touring his home state, especially focusing on the conservative districts attempting to swing some votes. According to many of Cunningham’s interviews, his priority is ending corruption in D.C. and that “political corruption in Washington is a fundamental barrier to progress for our state and country”.
Analysis: The Cunningham-Tillis race is currently tightly contested. 538’s selections of polls show Cunningham leading most votes, but they are sort of out of date. Coronavirus also has a big impact on the election in that low candidate exposure tends to favor the incumbent, therefore Tillis gains a big advantage. The other option of course is that low turnout favors the candidate with a more excited base. Because of a lack or rallies due to the virus, that excitement may be hard to capture. The recent developments regarding North Carolina’s other Republican Senator Richard Burr and his alleged insider trading plays right into Cunningham’s hands. Because he is running on an anti-corruption message, this is not a good sign for North Carolina Republicans. Another thing that seems to be hurting Tillis’ chances is his past. Cunningham has been constantly hitting Tillis on his flip-flops with regards to Border funding and the environment. Notably, in regards to the Wall, Tillis voted on federal funding that would be taken directly out of North Carolina’s military base improvements. Tillis is also very unpopular compared to President Trump losing in polls in a state Trump won by 1.2 million votes. All in all, Cunningham looks like he is in a good position as long as he doesn’t get complacent. That means constant online outreach, digital rallies, and as many adds he can afford.