A sexting scandal and coronavirus case cast doubt on a flippable seat
On Friday, Oct. 2, Republican incumbent Senator Thom Tillis announced he had tested positive for COVID-19, and newly released screenshots embroiled Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham in a sexting scandal. Tillis attended the White House party for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 26, where he was seen without a mask. He is quarantining at home and is currently asymptomatic. Following the release of screenshots, Cunningham, who has built his campaign around his military service and integrity, apologized for sending romantic and sexualized messages to a woman who is not his wife. In an interview with the Associated Press on Oct. 6, the woman stated they had also engaged in consensual intimacy in July. Cunningham has not responded to the most recent allegations but assured voters on Oct. 2 that he would continue his campaign. Given how recently these stories broke, reliable polls have not been conducted, and it is unclear how these developments will affect the race. Previously, the race was seen as Cunningham’s to lose, providing the Democrats a needed seat to flip the Senate, but it is currently labeled a toss up by Cook Political Report. The race is also one of the most expensive Senate races: according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Tillis raised $13.7 million in the second quarter (April 1 – June 20), and Cunningham raised $14.8 million.
Tillis was elected in 2014, defeating the Democratic incumbent. Prior to serving in the U.S. Senate, he served as the Speaker of the State House of Representatives, where he introduced restrictions on abortion and blocked the expansion of Medicaid. He currently serves on the Senate Committees on the Judiciary; Armed Services; Veterans’ Affairs; and Banking, Housing, & Urban Affairs. He is also a co-chair of the Senate Human Rights Caucus. Early in his tenure, Tillis was critical of President Donald Trump, presenting himself as a moderate conservative, but he has become increasingly aligned with Trump and his policies. On his campaign website, he calls himself “a common-sense fiscal conservative.” Tillis places significant emphasis on his working class upbringing and non-traditional college pathway (he received his undergraduate degree at age 36). He became a high level executive at PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM and wants to help his constituents achieve the American Dream like he did.
Tillis does not include any platforms or policy ideas on his campaign website, as is standard for candidates. On his official Senate website, he does have information about what he’s accomplished in the Senate and what work he hopes to continue. Tillis proudly supports the Trump administration’s tax plan and argues that removing regulations and cutting business taxes is the best way to bolster the economy. He helped pass bipartisan education legislation to “remove power from bureaucrats and provide more control to states, local school districts, teachers, and parents.” While he opposes the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and has joined efforts to overturn it, he wants to provide coverage for those with preexisting conditions and allow young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until they turn 26. Tillis is committed to combating the opioid epidemic and improving mental health care and coverage. With North Carolina’s solar energy industry and popular national parks, Tillis supports expanding renewable energy and increasing national parks spending. His stance on China-U.S. relations can be clearly seen from his campaign store where they sell a sticker that says, “China lied, make them pay!”
Cunningham was elected to the State Senate at 27 years old but left to volunteer for the U.S. Army Reserves following 9/11. He had originally joined the U.S. Naval Reserve while in law school at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but voluntarily transferred. He spent his first tour at Fort Bragg in California as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, prosecuting multiple felony cases. For his second tour, he served as counsel for the Multi-National Corps-Iraq where he developed a new system for transferring cases back to the Department of Justice to hold contractors accountable. He spent his last tour with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan as a Deputy Command Judge Advocate. He still holds the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and serves as an Army Reserve Team Leader. Following the sexting scandal, on Oct. 6, the Army Reserves began an investigation.
Cunningham is pro-choice and pro-gun control. He wants to improve healthcare by expanding the ACA and Medicaid, creating a public option, lowering the price of pharmaceuticals, supporting research, and improving healthcare facilities in rural communities. He supports raising the minimum wage and increasing corporate taxes. By guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, supporting rural industries, and investing in communities of color, Cunningham hopes to create a more equitable economy. He has an ambitious education plan that strives to recruit and retain teachers, close funding gaps, improve early childhood education, lower the cost of college, and increase community college access. To address climate change, Cunningham supports investing in clean energy, reducing carbon pollution, protecting clean air and water, and conserving natural lands. Additionally, he wants to improve the immigration process, create lasting campaign finance reform, protect the health and wellbeing of veterans, and significantly reform the criminal justice system. Cunningham is endorsed by the North Carolina Association of Educators, the League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood, Everytown for Gun Safety, and End Citizens United.
Without a majority in the Senate, it is difficult for a party to pass legislation, and this races could determine which party holds the majority in January. To get involved with a specific campaign, visit their campaign website. To help engage new voters, learn more about When We All Vote and Rock The Vote. If you live in North Carolina, register to vote at https://www.ncsbe.gov/registering/how-register.