The primary last Tuesday reshaped the political landscape in North Carolina. In the U.S. Senate race, Cal Cunningham came out with a decisive victory and the Cook Political Report moved the general election race from lean Republican to toss-up. Once again, Democrats’ path to a Senate majority will run through North Carolina.
Cunningham’s chief rival in the primary was state Senator Erica Smith. While Smith didn’t raise much money on her own, a Mitch McConnell funded Super Pac poured millions into the state trying to defeat Cunningham. It didn’t work and Cunningham won by 22 points, proving that his campaign can weather turbulence and stay on track.
Cunningham started the election cycle running for lieutenant governor. When nobody emerged as a candidate for U.S. Senate, he switched campaigns. He may have stepped into the perfect storm.
Not only has Cunningham been able to put together a competent campaign, his general election opponent has never been able to gain his footing. Senator Thom Tillis has proven to be one of the least impressive Senators in North Carolina history. His approval ratings are underwater and polls have him trailing Cunningham. Tillis lacks the political skills to pull himself out of the hole. He’s abandoned most of his principles in a shameless attempt to secure Donald Trump’s blessing. Now, his fate is tied to the president.
Which leads to the other reason Cunningham’s switch to the Senate looks so smart. Joe Biden makes North Carolina seriously competitive. Biden’s win in North Carolina was impressive and the coalition that’s shaping up to support him could elect Democrats up-and-down the ballot. Bernie Sanders promised that he would win by expanding the electorate, but the uptick in primary voters benefitted Biden more. It wasn’t Bernie’s young supporters who showed up. It was the suburbanites who fueled Democrats’ success in 2018. They’re sticking with Biden, giving more evidence of a larger re-alignment in the country.
Finally, the political environment is souring for Republicans. It’s a long way from November but the coronavirus is leading to scary drops in the stock market. Most experts say a recession in near, if not already here. Just like Trump has stayed afloat because of a strong economy, he’ll sink with a bad one. It’s bad timing for the party in power.
Cunningham made a smart move to the Senate race. He filled a void and took a gamble, not unlike Bill Clinton in 1992. He’s got a weak incumbent as an opponent and a president who might be a drag on the ticket. The souring economy will likely help every Democratic challenger in the country. In addition, the electorate is shifting to favor Democrats and Trump and the economy might speed up the transition. Finally, he’s got a unified Democratic Party behind him with a laser-like focus on defeating Donald Trump.
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 >