Cal Cunningham vs. Thom Tillis: the North Carolina Senate race, explained

The road to a Democratic Senate majority runs through North Carolina.

Democrats hope former state lawmaker and military prosecutor Cal Cunningham can topple Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who is up for his first reelection since his win in 2014.

“North Carolinians know Thom Tillis, and they have very strong negative views about him, about his service, about the things he has chosen to pursue in office on issue after issue of importance to North Carolinians,” Cunningham told me in a recent interview. “He has either capitulated to the partisan pressures or walked in line with corporate special interests.”

Everybody I spoke to expects an extraordinarily tight Senate race. The outcome could very well decide which party controls the Senate in 2021, going by the Sabato’s Crystal Ball ratings. Assuming Democrats lose in the Alabama Senate race but win in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine — which forecasters say is a fairly likely scenario — then they just need a win in either North Carolina or Iowa. With one of those toss-up states, by Sabato’s reckoning, Democrats can secure 50 Senate seats.

Cal Cunningham speaks to supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina, on March 3.
Gerry Broome/AP

The last three presidential elections have been decided in North Carolina by less than 4 percentage points; Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are the only Democratic presidential candidates to win in the modern era. And despite Trump’s triumph here in 2016, Democrat Roy Cooper won that same year, becoming one of two Democratic governors in the South.

And 2020 looks as though it’ll be no different. Biden leads Trump by less than a point in the Real Clear Politics polling average; Cunningham is polling 4.4 points ahead of Tillis. That polling gap between Trump and Tillis is one reason for Democratic optimism; if an incumbent senator runs behind his party’s president, he seems to have some problems with the conservative base as well as persuadable voters.

But Tillis’s campaign is spending the final weeks of the race trying to erode Cunningham’s advantage by portraying him as a partisan Democrat.

North Carolina was already going to be one of the most fiercely contested Senates races of the year. Now, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and Republicans pledging to replace her in the middle of the campaign, the stakes of a Senate majority have never been clearer.

Why North Carolina is one of the swingiest of the swing states

North Carolina has, like most southern states, undergone a fundamental political realignment in the last 50 years. Conservative Democrats have mostly left that party behind and many have joined the Republicans. At the same time, young people make up a growing percentage of the electorate, and while they officially register as unaffiliated, they tend to be more progressive in their politics.

By voter registration numbers, the state is neatly divided in thirds among Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated voters. But most of those unaffiliated voters are actually reliable votes for one party or the other. Instead, according to the political scientists and strategists I spoke with, North Carolina looks more like this: 45 percent Republican voters, 45 percent Democratic voters, and 10 percent truly persuadable swing voters.

So any winning coalition in the state starts with turning out as many voters in your 45 percent as you can — and then winning that small percentage of persuadable voters and ticket splitters.

Where are those gettable voters? The suburbs.

Urban voters overwhelmingly back Democratic candidates (Hillary Clinton won 66 percent of the central city vote in 2016, according to Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer, who writes at Old North State Politics). Rural voters are reliable votes for the Republicans, with Trump commanding a 21-point edge there over Clinton.

That leaves the suburbs as the most important battleground. But Bitzer distinguishes between two different kinds of suburbs, which are pivotal in distinct ways.

Urban county suburbs are closer to their city centers, contained within the same county borders. These areas were decided by a thin margin in 2016: Clinton won them by 1 point, GOP Sen. Richard Burr took them by 3 points on his way to reelection, and Cooper by 4. These are moderate, sometimes ticket-splitting voters, and they helped Burr and Cooper win those races for their respective parties.

The surrounding county suburbs are a little farther out from the city and tend to be more solidly Republican. Trump won 65 percent of the vote in those places and Burr won 63 percent. But even a slight underperformance there by Republicans can make a difference: Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory won 61 percent of this exurban vote, a notch lower than Trump and Burr, when he lost to Cooper. Paired with Cooper’s edge in the urban suburbs, that was just enough to give…

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