RALEIGH, North Carolina — North Carolina is a key battleground state for both the presidency and control of the Senate in the 2020 election.


*Counties are colored red or blue when the % expected vote reporting reaches a set threshold. This threshold varies by state and is based on patterns of past vote reporting and expectations about how the vote will report this year.
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Senate: Thom Tillis v. Cal Cunningham

Sen. Thom Tillis attacks Cal Cunningham, defends his own votes on SCOTUS, Obamacare

Cunningham is bypassing uncomfortable questions about his extramarital activities in the final days of his closely contested race with GOP Sen. Thom Tillis.

Whether his strategy alters the outcome of what’s now the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history will depend on whether swing voters are set on removing Tillis – and potentially ending GOP control of the chamber – even if it means a replacement facing a sex scandal.

“Clearly Cunningham made a self-inflicted wound, but the question is what are voters really going to be focused on down the stretch?” asked Thomas Mills, a longtime Democratic consultant not involved in the race.

Cunningham acknowledged three weeks ago that he exchanged sexually suggestive texts with a woman who is not his wife. A few days later, The Associated Press reported additional texts and interviews confirming they had an intimate encounter as recent as July – while Cunningham was deep in the hard-fought campaign.

Since then, Cunningham has largely stuck to tightly controlled virtual calls with interest groups that back him and small, unannounced in-person appearances so reporters can’t ask questions. During the one online news conference he held, the Raleigh attorney and U.S. Army Reserve officer refused to directly answer whether he had had other affairs.

“I’ve taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life. I’ve apologized for it,” Cunningham told reporters on Oct. 9. “I’ve said what I’m going to say about it.”

Tillis and Republican allies are jumping on Cunningham’s reticence, running ads that question his trustworthiness in contrast with his TV-commercial persona as an Army officer who rooted out corrupt military contractors in Iraq. Some feature veterans. Tillis’ campaign also says he’s given more than two dozen interviews since Cunningham’s lone news conference.

Cunningham “has not been truthful and he has not been honorable,” Tillis said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And then that raises a question about whether or not you can believe anything he said up to this point in terms of what he will and will not do if he gets elected to the Senate.”

Cunningham has tried to frame the race on issues and ousting Tillis, who is seeking his second term. He’s blamed Tillis for failing to expand COVID-19 relief and voting often to do away with President Barack Obama’s health care law. Groups from the Human Rights Campaign to the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters to unions are coming to Cunningham’s side.

“You’ve got to send Cal Cunningham to the United States Senate if health care is your issue in the state of North Carolina,” Brad Woodhouse, president of Protect Our Care, an organization that advocates preserving the 2010 health care law, said at a virtual event this week featuring Cunningham. No questions were taken from the news media.

Changes to campaigns nationwide amid the pandemic have made Cunningham’s low-key campaign profile seem less jarring. Tillis was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early October. He campaigned in person last weekend after recovering.

Cunningham’s campaign didn’t make him available for an AP interview. Instead, spokesperson Rachel Petri released a statement saying, “Sen. Tillis and his allies are relying on desperate, personal attacks to make their final appeal to North Carolinians because they cannot defend Sen. Tillis’ record.” Cunningham himself makes a similar pitch in a TV ad that began running Friday.

National Democrats are committed to protecting their investment in the seat – one of several they’re spending heavily on to wrest from Republicans this year. They need to flip at least four to take back the Senate. North Carolina’s is already the most expensive Senate race ever, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with $246 million spent so far by the two candidates and outside groups.

Cunningham’s campaign raised $28.3 million in the third quarter, quadrupling what Tillis’ raised, and allowing the Democrat to hammer away with TV ads. Cunningham outraised Tillis again in the first two weeks of October, according to campaign reports.

But polls show the race narrowing, and the editorial boards of the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers withheld an endorsement of Cunningham that they said they had been prepared to give him before the affair. “His lack of judgment … should deeply trouble North Carolinians,” their editorial read. The papers did not endorse either candidate.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper referred to Cunningham’s troubles while he spoke briefly with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden during a campaign stop in North Carolina last weekend.

Republicans have emphasized how the U.S. Army Reserve is now investigating Cunningham. The military hasn’t said for what, but adultery can be punishable under the military code.

Campaign operatives have said for months the outcome would depend on independent voters, who now make up one-third of the state’s electorate. With so many people voting early – nearly 3 million as of early Saturday – the universe of unaffiliated voters is shrinking quickly.

It includes Carol Hall, 56, an interior designer from Charlotte who switched her Republican registration last year because she didn’t feel the party cared about moderates any more.

Cunningham “screwed up, there’s no doubt about it,” Hall said. But she said she’s still prepared to vote for him unless more sexual revelations surface. “He’s not the first politician to have an affair,” she added, pointing to the multiple allegations against Trump.

“It’s troubling for sure, but I don’t think that those actions will change what he can do for North Carolina,” Hall said.

But Cunningham’s activities are a game-changer for unaffiliated voter Brian Harbach, 39, of Greensboro, who was a Bernie Sanders supporter. The forecast analyst in the apparel industry said he’s now voting for Tillis instead of Cunningham.

“We just can’t be sending low-character people to the Senate,” Harbach said.

NC House Race: Madison Cawthorn vs. Moe Davis

At the beginning of the cycle, it would have been hard to imagine that North Carolina’s 11th District could be competitive. But it became slightly less red in court-mandated redistricting, and now that Mark Meadows is in the White House, it’s an open seat.

Madison Cawthorn from Henderson County, North Carolina would be youngest member of Congress

A 24-year-old candidate won the Republican nomination for a western North Carolina congressional primary, beating President Donald Trump’s choice for the seat recently held by his chief of staff.

Real estate investment firm CEO Madison Cawthorn handily defeated Lynda Bennett in the 11th Congressional District runoff. Bennett had received Trump’s endorsement and had the backing of Mark Meadows, who held the seat for more than seven years but decided not to run again.

Meadows resigned from Congress in March as he became chief of staff.

NC State House, Senate control

Democrats, Republicans battle for control of NC House, Senate

While the presidential, senate, and gubernatorial races have garnered significant attention, both Republicans and Democrats are continuing to place significant attention on local races.

Republicans control both the state Senate and House, though their margins diminished during the 2018 elections where Democrats were able to break their veto-proof majority. Republicans control 29 of 50 state Senate seats and 65 of 120 House seats; that means Democrats would need to flip five Senate seats and six House seats to win both chambers.
“In 2018, (Democrats) got the easier districts. You saw in Wake County, for example, in Mecklenburg County, Democrats did very well. So, now they’re left with races (that) are more competitive but still don’t favor Democratic candidates. They’ll pick up a few (seats) I think in each chamber. I’d say the likelihood of them (winning) the Senate, which is more likely than the House, is maybe 50/50,” said Meredith College political science professor David McLennan.

Democratic advantages in urban strongholds such as the Triangle, Mecklenburg, and Greensboro make a big impact in statewide races; however, Republicans have long dominated rural counties, giving them an edge in local races.

“(Democrats have) got to go to what are called outer-ring counties. These are areas that are relatively close to metropolitan areas but are not considered to be suburban counties,” said McLennan, who used Granville, Cabarrus, and Union counties as examples.

The pandemic has altered both parties’ ability to campaign, though NCGOP spokesman Tim Wigginton pointed to years-long ground-game efforts making an impact.

“After 2016, the NCGOP, the RNC, the Trump campaign, they didn’t leave. We stayed on the ground. We were still registering voters. And you’re starting to see the results of that now. There’s (108,000) more registered Republican voters now than there was in 2016,” Wigginton said. “A large part of that is because we didn’t stop registering people, we didn’t stop engaging. So now, we’ve increased our voter pool and we’re now turning them out to vote.”
Wigginton also said frequent visits by President Donald Trump, combined with Sen. Thom Tillis being more visible than scandal-plagued Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, could assist lesser-known candidates.

“You see Republicans are out there engaging voters right now and that’s going to help push out Republican turnout, which is good for everybody down the ballot,” Wigginton said. “But also our statehouse candidates, we have a good mail program. We have good door-knocking programs, micro-targeting programs. As we increase turnout, we’re able to talk to go (out) in the local level and talk to people face-to-face, to make up for any lack of visibility they may have.”

North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin downplayed the effect of President Trump’s trips to the state.

“I don’t think Trump having these rallies are doing anything more than speaking to a sphere of folks who are already voting for him. He’s not making his case to anybody new,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin, who himself is on the ballot (running for insurance commissioner) said he believes Democrats have effectively unified behind several issues, making it easier for voters to support down-ballot candidates that they may not be familiar with.
“What we do is we break it down into (the) simplest of terms. When you see these different names on the ballot, we’re going to say, look — what you actually see on the ballot is healthcare. Which party’s candidates supports protecting your healthcare? Which party’s candidates support protecting Social Security? Which party’s candidates support protecting Medicare. Which party’s candidates believe in clean water and clean air, and having a government that speaks up for you and fights for you, and not divide us,” Goodwin said.

North Carolina, a swing state with several high-profile races, has attracted a number of outside advocacy groups to help supplement the parties’ efforts.

“They have limited resources and they have to spread the resources out to the presidential candidates, gubernatorial candidates, the Senate candidates, even the judicial candidates. The State Supreme Court is an important seat that the parties are contesting. But there are third-party groups that have gotten really involved in legislative races,” McLennan said.

NC Vote Count Ruling

The Supreme Court will allow absentee ballots in North Carolina to be received and counted up to nine days after Election Day.

The justices, by a 5-3 vote Wednesday, refused to disturb a decision by the State Board of Elections to lengthen the period from three to nine days because of the coronavirus pandemic, pushing back the deadline to Nov. 12. The board’s decision was part of a legal settlement with a union-affiliated group.

Republicans had asked the high court to step in.

Under the Supreme Court’s order, mailed ballots postmarked on or before Election Day must be received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 12 in order to be counted.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the three liberal justices in the majority. Three conservative justices, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, dissented.
New Justice Amy Coney Barrett took no part in the case “because of the need for a prompt resolution and because she has not had time to fully review the parties’ filings,” court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat whose office defended the deadline extension in court, hailed the high court’s decision in a statement. “North Carolina voters had a huge win tonight at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court upheld the State Board of Elections’ effort to ensure that every eligible vote counts, even during a pandemic,” he said. “Voters must have their mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, but now we all have certainty that every eligible vote will be counted. Let’s vote!”

Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger said the high court’s order will undermine public confidence in government.

“The question is simple: May unelected bureaucrats on a state panel controlled by one political party overrule election laws passed by legislatures, even after ballots have already been cast? If public confidence in elections is important to our system of government, then hopefully the answer to that question is no,” Berger said in a statement.

State and national Republican groups, including President Donald Trump’s campaign, had filed separate but similar appeals asking the high court to make the state revert to a Nov. 6 deadline for accepting late-arriving ballots that were postmarked by Election Day. That three-day timeframe was specified in state law.

The appeals, including one led by the state’s Republican legislative leaders, argued that the deadline change put in place by the State Board of Elections usurped legislators’ constitutional authority to set rules for elections. They also said the change made after early voting started would create unequal treatment of voters who had cast ballots under previous, stricter rules.

The State Board of Elections had lengthened the period as part of a late September legal settlement with the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans, a union-affiliated group represented by Marc Elias, a lawyer prominent in Democratic circles. The legal settlement, which also loosened requirements for fixing absentee ballots that lacked a witness signature, was approved by a state judge. The settlement said counties should have longer to accept ballots because of possible mail delays.

A federal judge later ruled that counties couldn’t accept absentee ballots that lacked a witness signature but declined to intervene on the deadline extension.
Gorsuch said the state legislature already had responded to voting challenges related to the pandemic by allowing absentee ballots to arrive three days after the election and still be counted. The election board and the state judge “worked together to override a carefully tailored legislative response to COVID,” Gorsuch wrote.

The changes developed by the Democratic-majority state elections board and defended in court by Stein prompted accusations from Republican legislative leaders that state elections officials had cut a backroom deal to favor left-leaning candidates and causes. State House Speaker Tim Moore and Berger quickly moved to challenge the rule changes in state and federal court, as did the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and other national groups.

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