Scandal and coronavirus rattle pivotal North Carolina Senate race between Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham

Key Points
  • Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham face off in a North Carolina Senate race that will help to decide the chamber's majority in the 2020 election. 
  • Cunningham's extramarital affair and Tillis' diagnosis with coronavirus upended a race in which the Democratic challenger had steadily led in polls. 
  • The two campaigns and outside groups have spent nearly $140 million in North Carolina, making it the most expensive 2020 Senate contest by a wide margin.
  • Polls show North Carolina could be one of the closest states in the race for the White House between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. 
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.(L) and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham (R)
Getty Images (L) | AP (R)

For an election that could tip the balance of congressional power and help to shape the path of U.S. policy for two years, the North Carolina Senate race looked remarkably stable for months. 

Then Oct. 2 happened. 

First, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis said he tested positive for coronavirus. Tillis' diagnosis, which came as President Donald Trump, several of Trump's White House and campaign advisors and two other GOP senators confirmed Covid-19 infections, will keep the senator off the campaign trail for days as he tries to overcome a polling deficit in his reelection bid. Tillis has said he is improving after having "mild" symptoms.

As an outbreak raged through the highest levels of government, it only took a few hours for the attention to shift to Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. The former state senator and Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, who has put Tillis on his heels while running as a pragmatic family man, admitted to sending romantic texts to a California woman who is not his wife.

The Associated Press has since reported Cunningham had a physical relationship with public relations strategist Arlene Guzman Todd. In a statement Friday, Cunningham said, "I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends and am deeply sorry." He added he would not drop out of the race.

Not enough time has passed to assess how both Cunningham's scandal and Tillis' illness will affect the outcome. Before the developments, the election in swing-state North Carolina developed into a close contest defined by thorny issues including the government response to the coronavirus, access to health care and the GOP push to confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett before the Nov. 3 election.

Republicans hope to defend the seat and keep their 53-47 Senate majority — which would give a buffer against Democratic policies if former Vice President Joe Biden defeats Trump. Democrats need to flip a net three seats to gain Senate control if Biden wins or four if he loses. 

Underscoring the race's importance, the two campaigns and outside groups have spent nearly $140 million in North Carolina, making it the most expensive 2020 Senate contest by a wide margin, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Cunningham's campaign said it raised a staggering $28.3 million in the third quarter, while Tillis' campaign has not released the amount of its fundraising haul yet. 

"It's probably the closest state in the country," said Jason Roberts, associate chair of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's political science department, of one of the few states that will play a huge role in determining who controls both the White House and Senate.

Tillis lags behind Trump

Biden and Trump's fiery first debate—Here are the highlights
Biden and Trump's fiery first debate—Here are the highlights

Cunningham leads Tillis by about 5 percentage points in an average of recent polls, according to RealClearPolitics. It could take time for more surveys to capture how Cunningham's scandal affects the race. A CNBC/Change Research poll taken Friday through Sunday found Cunningham leading Tillis by 4 percentage points, compared with a 5 percentage point edge two weeks earlier. 

"I don't know whether [Cunningham's affair or Tillis' diagnosis] makes a difference to people who haven't made up their minds," said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.

Roberts said Cunningham's relationship "can only hurt him" in a race that will likely be decided by a close margin.

Tillis' campaign has hammered the Democrat over the scandal. The senator told Fox News this week that Cunningham "owes the people of North Carolina a full explanation." 

Cunningham emerged on the campaign trail for the first time in days Wednesday night to say he was "deeply sorry." He tried to refocus on the pandemic and health care in what he called "by far the most important election in our lifetime." Cunningham argued Tillis "has now resorted to trying to make this campaign about something other than the issues" because of the polling gap. 

In a statement Wednesday night, Tillis campaign manager Luke Blanchat called Cunningham's apology "insincere." He urged the Democrat to answer more questions about the affair. 

In this week's CNBC/Change Research survey, 3% of likely voters said they were unsure whom to support and 1% of respondents answered that they would not vote in the race. As hundreds of North Carolina voters cast their ballots early, 13% of respondents in the state said they already voted. 

At the same time, Biden leads Trump by an average of about 1 percentage point in North Carolina, according to RealClearPolitics. The gap in support between Trump and Tillis could reflect the senator's struggle to appeal to both conservatives who back the president and independent-minded voters wary of him.

"Trying to thread the needle, I think he stabbed himself," Roberts said. 

One illustrative episode for Tillis, a 60-year-old serving his first term in the Senate after a stint as North Carolina's House speaker, came early last year. He wrote a Washington Post column opposing Trump's national emergency declaration that allowed the president to direct Pentagon funds to construction of barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border. Tillis then reversed course and voted not to block the declaration on the Senate floor. 

The senator has pushed for Barrett's swift confirmation to lock up a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court majority — a possible signal that he sees high Republican turnout as his path to victory. As he recovers from Covid-19, Tillis aims to return to Washington on Oct. 12 for Barrett's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Tillis is one of two GOP members of the panel, along with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who tested positive for coronavirus in recent days. Cunningham has joined Senate Democrats in saying the next president should fill the court vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death.

Tillis' efforts to reduce his vulnerability on health-care issues have also created dilemmas for the senator as Cunningham criticizes him for his 2017 vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He has pushed for legislation that aims to safeguard the ACA's protections for people with pre-existing conditions. But Tillis also did not join some of his vulnerable GOP colleagues last week in supporting a Democratic measure to stop the Trump administration's support for a lawsuit that could toss out the health-care law.

What North Carolina voters care about

Poll: Majority of voters want more federal stimulus
Poll: Majority of voters want more federal stimulus

Health care and other topics at the top of North Carolina voters' minds mirror the concerns of the country as a whole. Asked to pick the three most important issues facing the country, North Carolina respondents in this week's CNBC/Change Research survey chose: 

  • The economy, jobs and cost of living (40%)
  • Political corruption (35%)
  • Covid-19 (34%)
  • Health care and drug costs (33%)
  • Law and order (33%)
  • Racism and discrimination (31%)
  • Medicare and Social Security (22%)
  • Climate change and the environment (17%)
  • Immigration (13%) 
  • Education (12%)
  • National security (10%) 
  • Guns (8%)
  • Infrastructure (5%)
  • Taxes (4%)
  • The budget (4%)

North Carolina's economy has fared relatively well in recovering from the coronavirus-related shutdowns earlier this year. The state's 6.5% unemployment rate in August tied for the 17th-lowest in the country, according to the Labor Department

But the state's jobless rate stands higher than the 4.3% mark seen in March. Leisure and hospitality jobs have taken the biggest hit, down 25% in August from 12 months earlier. 

Concerns have grown about the economic recovery faltering if Congress fails to pass more relief. Economists and policymakers including Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned this week of "tragic" consequences in a slowing economy if Congress fails to pass more fiscal stimulus.

Tillis supported a roughly $500 billion aid plan from Senate Republicans, which Democrats blocked as they pushed for a package that would put $2 trillion or more into the economy and health-care system. Trump on Tuesday told his administration to back out of ongoing talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, then changed course and called for standalone bills related to provisions including direct payments and small business loans. 

When Cunningham's campaign tweeted Tuesday for the first time since Friday, it highlighted jobless claims in North Carolina. In the tweeted statement, the candidate said, "Congress needs to pass bipartisan legislation—and quickly." 

Meanwhile, the virus outbreak continues to spread. North Carolina reported 1,711 new infections on Wednesday, and cases climbed nearly 6% over the prior seven-day period, according to the Covid Tracking Project. More than 1,000 people are hospitalized in the state. 

Black people account for 21% of North Carolina's population but have made up 23% of the state's Covid-19 cases and 30% of deaths where race is reported, the Covid Tracking Project found. The state has reported race data for 79% of cases and 95% of deaths. 

North Carolina, led by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, generally took a stricter approach to containing the virus than the neighboring Republican-controlled states of South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. While North Carolina has generally not been "quite as bad as most of the rest of the South," the governor has faced GOP resistance over public health restrictions as he runs for reelection, said Donald Taylor, a professor of public policy at Duke University. 

"I think the Republicans in the state have mostly painted a false choice of: You either address the virus, or you open the economy," he said. 

Access to health care has come under more scrutiny during the pandemic, especially as millions of Americans lose employer-sponsored coverage along with their jobs. In North Carolina, which did not expand Medicaid under the ACA, more than 13% of people under 65 lack health insurance, according to U.S. Census estimates.

During the three times the candidates faced off on a debate stage, they touched on their health-care plans. Tillis has said Obamacare does not work, but he has not outlined a comprehensive replacement proposal. He has argued Cunningham wants to replace the private insurance market with a "Medicare for All" system. 

The Democrat has said he does not want a single-payer system, but instead, like Biden, he wants a public option to allow more people to choose government plans. He has pushed for the federal government to create incentives for states to expand Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for low-income Americans.

North Carolina's swing-state status

As one of the key electoral swing states, North Carolina has a recent history of electing both Republicans and Democrats in statewide races. President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 as Democrat Kay Hagan defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole. 

GOP nominee Mitt Romney narrowly carried the state in the 2012 presidential race, while fellow Republican Pat McCrory won the governor's office. In 2014, the Republican Tillis unseated the incumbent Democrat Hagan by a margin of fewer than 2 percentage points. 

Trump carried the state by more than 3 percentage points in 2016 as GOP Sen. Richard Burr won reelection by more than 5 percentage points. The current Democratic governor, Cooper, also defeated McCrory by a razor-thin margin. 

Roberts said Republicans will aim to run up their margin of victory in the state's more conservative rural areas. Democrats have a challenge in trying to drive up turnout in the state's most populous city of Charlotte and several smaller urban areas, including the capital Raleigh, Greensboro and Durham. 

To win, Democrats could also need large winning margins among Black voters, who fueled Biden's 2020 primary success in North Carolina and neighboring South Carolina. Black voters made up 27% of North Carolina's electorate in this year's Democratic primary, and Biden garnered more than 60% of support among the bloc, according to exit polls. 

For now, it could take time to tell how the wave of new developments will affect the race between Tillis and Cunningham. While Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis, treatment and subsequent efforts to downplay the virus have taken up significant attention since Friday, Cunningham's extramarital affair has received a flurry of coverage in both local news in North Carolina and national outlets. 

Taylor of NC State said part of the trouble forecasting how the Democrat's scandal will affect the race comes down to a lack of clarity around whether the story can get through the rapid-fire chaos of the daily news surrounding the president and election. Tillis also has no more scheduled debates during which to press the issue.

"The news cycle seems so crowded that it's hard sometimes for information to penetrate and get into the minds of citizens," he said. 

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