The race for North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seat appears to be set after Tuesday night’s unofficial primary election results came in. Republican incumbent Thom Tillis will face off against Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham in the general election on Nov. 3, 2020.
Both candidates won their primary elections by wide margins. Tillis garnered 78.10 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, while Cunningham, a former N.C. State Senator, defeated N.C. Sen. Erica Smith (D-Beaufort) by a margin of 22.25 percent.
Tillis briefly faced a primary challenge from businessman Garland Tucker, who dropped out in December.
Tillis has been criticized at times for a lack of perceived loyalty to President Donald Trump, particularly when Tillis initially opposed Trump’s desire to declare a national emergency at the United States-Mexico border.
Mitch Kokai, a senior political analyst at the conservative John Locke Foundation, said Tillis will likely try to appeal as a safer choice to voters in the general election.
“My guess is it's going to be much more the case of trying to paint the opponent as too far outside the mainstream Carolina voters,” Kokai said, comparing this tactic to the strategy used by former President Barack Obama in his reelection campaign against Mitt Romney.
Tillis did just that in a statement after early results gave him a commanding lead in the GOP primary.
“This race will present a clear contrast between me and my opponent, Cal Cunningham. I want to keep working with President Trump to create jobs, boost wages, secure winning trade deals, rebuild our military, improve health care for veterans, combat sanctuary cities and confirm well-qualified judges to the federal bench,” Tillis said in the statement. “My opponent, on the other hand, spent his primary embracing far left positions like removing President Trump from office, repealing the 2017 tax cuts, enabling sanctuary cities, opposing America-First trade policies and criticizing the killing of a murderous terrorist from Iran.”
Tillis has a statewide approval ratings of only about 34 percent, although about a third of those surveyed in a January Morning Consult poll said they had no opinion about him.
Meanwhile, Cunningham has run a moderate campaign for the Democratic nomination thus far. He has supported the expansion of the Affordable Care Act with the creation of a public insurance option, and investment in solar and wind energy. Smith, his closest competitor in the race, supported more progressive policy positions, including both "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal.
Kokai said this race looks like it will be an important national race in November.
“This particular race was really high on the Democrats’ radar in terms of seats they wanted to flip to be able to help Democrats win control of the Senate,” he said, although he also said it is not one of the top two or three races nationally for Democrats.
Cunningham was significantly better funded than his competitors. His campaign has raised $4.7 million according to FEC filings. Smith, meanwhile, had only raised about $238,000.
The Senate race was perhaps second only to the presidential race in terms of importance for Orange County voters on Tuesday.
“I was most interested in the presidential and the U.S. Senate primary because I’m hoping Thom Tillis will get defeated in the Senate, so that race was really important to me,” said Hillsborough resident Susanna Vergara.
UNC student Ryker Smith said they would like to see more diverse candidates in office. Cunningham is a white man, and Smith is a Black woman.
“I want to see more women and more people of color in our Senate. It’s a little bit too white-male dominated currently, and I don’t like that,” Smith said. “There seems to be a white-male narrative that we have seen too often and there are a plethora of other people who are just as equally qualified to lead.”
Dylan Phillips and Elise Palmer contributed reporting.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.