A poll from Fox News last week showed Cal Cunningham trailing Erica Smith in the Democratic primary for US Senate. The poll also gave Senator Thom Tillis his best numbers yet, showing he had a positive favorability rating, something he hasn’t seen in any poll since early in his tenure. It also showed him with a commanding lead in his primary. The poll contrasted with another one that showed him still underwater.
Tillis is generally considered one of the most vulnerable US Senators. He’s a first-termer who barely won his race against Kay Hagan in 2014 and has never been overly popular. He’s seen as a political opportunist by those on both the right and left. Most famously, he wrote an op-ed laying out a solid case for opposing the president for declaring a state of emergency to build the border wall and then promptly flip-flopped to vote with Trump. Since then, he’s worked hard to portray himself as Trump’s chief water boy. People with more self-respect would be embarrassed but not Tillis.
The race in November will depend on who challenges Tillis. The Fox poll really showed that nobody knows much about either Smith or Cunningham. About half the voters are undecided and I suspect the support that each has is soft. It’s a wide open race that should be determined by the candidate who puts together the best campaign.
Right now, that candidate is Cunningham. He’s raised $1.7 million and has more than a million cash-on-hand. According to her latest FEC report, Smith has raised less than $70,000 and only has $55,681 cash-on-hand. That’s not enough money to credibly challenge Tillis. As my friend and fundraiser extraordinaire Scott Gale likes to say, “Money is not the most important thing in politics but all the most important things cost money.”
Early money in campaigns is a sign of broad support. Cunningham seems to have it and he’s putting together an organization that looks like a professional campaign. Smith seems to be running a campaign primarily on social media. She’ll need to do better than that to defeat Tillis.
Smith’s path to victory runs through the black community. She’ll need to consolidate her support among the African-American voters who will make up about 40% of the primary electorate. She’ll need to show that she can give Tillis a run for his money on more than just Twitter, though. Nationally, black Democrats have shown that they want a candidate who can win in 2020.
Smith’s lead in the Fox poll may be real, but it’s tiny and her support is soft. The voters are overwhelmingly undecided and uneducated about the primary. It will come into focus more after the first of the year. Right now, Cunningham is the candidate with the campaign that looks most prepared for the year-long battle to take back the Senate seat that Tillis holds.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >