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This North Carolina Democrat will try to unseat Thom Tillis this fall

The state is one of Democrats’ biggest targets come November.

Senate candidate Cal Cunningham at a primary election night party in Raleigh, North Carolina, on March 3, 2020.
Gerry Broome/AP
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Cal Cunningham, an Army veteran and former state senator, will take on Sen. Thom Tillis (R) in what’s expected to be an extremely competitive North Carolina Senate race this fall.

Cunningham beat out a slate of opponents, including progressive state Sen. Erica Smith, to win Democrats’ North Carolina Senate primary on Tuesday night. Viewed as a more moderate option, he’s centered his campaign on the expansion of the Affordable Care Act, opposed the Green New Deal, and garnered the backing of Senate Democrats’ national campaign arm.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Cunningham won 57 percent to Smith’s 35 percent. Cunningham, now in-house counsel for an environmental consultancy, ran for the Senate in 2010 and lost in the runoff. After his more successful bid Tuesday night, he previewed some of the attacks he plans to levy against Tillis during his victory speech in Raleigh.

“In the push and pull of Washington politics, Thom Tillis has decided there is something more important than representing us,” Cunningham said. “He has put his own political interests and special interests ahead of North Carolina’s interests.”

Cunningham called out Tillis for supporting President Donald Trump’s efforts to shift $80 million from the state’s military bases to fund his border wall, and his backing for offshore drilling along the North Carolina coast, among other actions.

Cunningham is one of several candidates running in pivotal swing states this November. Democrats have long eyed North Carolina, Maine, Arizona, and Colorado as part of their bid to retake the Senate this fall — and the race in the Tar Heel State is expected to be close.

Tillis won the Republican primary on Tuesday as well, and noted that the two will be facing off in debates in the coming months.

“I am pleased that my opponent has already accepted my challenge to participate in five debates during the general election, and believe I will be victorious in this race when North Carolinians are made aware of the stark differences between my record of common-sense conservative accomplishments and the socialist direction the Democrats want to take this country in,” he said in a statement.

Currently, Cook Political Report gives Republicans a slight edge in North Carolina, rating the race “Lean Republican.”

“North Carolina is probably a must-win for Democrats to retake the Senate,” Kyle Kondik, editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, tells Vox. “The race appears highly competitive, as Senate races in the state often are.”

Democrats’ efforts to retake the Senate run through North Carolina

Currently, Democrats are in the Senate minority by just a few seats. Republicans have the advantage 53-47, and this year’s electoral map puts more GOP members on the spot than it does Democrats.

Among Republicans, a handful of members including Tillis and Arizona Sen. Martha McSally are vulnerable this cycle, while Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama is seen as the main Democrat who faces strong competition this fall.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) speaks to attendees during a rally by President Trump in Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 2, 2020.
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The North Carolina Senate seat is a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats given how tight prior races have been. The state’s Senate seats have swung between the two parties for several cycles in the past: Tillis most recently won in 2014 when he beat out then-Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan by just 46,000 votes, 48.8 percent to 47.3 percent.

When it comes to presidential elections, too, North Carolina has gone back and forth in recent elections. In 2008, Barack Obama won the state by an extremely narrow margin, and in 2012 and 2016, Sen. Mitt Romney and Donald Trump took it back.

“This will be one of the more expensive races in the country. We’ve seen North Carolina be a battleground state for Senate races for a while,” Meredith College political science professor David McLennan told the North Carolina-based network WTVD.

So far, Tillis has a major advantage when it comes to funding: He’s got $5.4 million cash on hand while Cunningham has $1.4 million, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. Polling up until this point has had mixed results, with a February East Carolina University poll showing Tillis up by 2 points, and another NBC News poll with Cunningham up by 5 points. There are, of course, still several months until the election, and these dynamics could well change before then.

Tillis has sought to align himself closely with Trump, who endorsed him for the Republican ticket last year, as part of his campaign. The president’s approval ratings have dipped some in the state, but he remains very popular among Republicans: His approval across all voters is currently at 51 percent, according to Morning Consult, while Tillis’s is at 34 percent.

Cunningham has repeatedly targeted the ties between the two and is expected to keep on doing so.

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