Sunday, August 30, 2020

Race of the Day- North Carolina U.S. Senate

North Carolina U.S. Senate

65 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent
2016 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Tossup (D)

North Carolina has shown a penchant, more so than other states, to oust incumbent Senators, usually after their first term. That is what freshman Republican Thom Tillis is hoping to overcome this year. Many believe that North Carolina is still conservative enough for him to pull off a victory but there are factors at play that would make this more difficult for a vulnerable Republican than recent cycles. The current polls show a solidifying lead for the Democrat, but I think this is still a race that could go either way. The signs at the moment are not what an incumbent would hope for though.

Six years ago, Tillis beat a freshman Democrat in a hotly contestant race, six years after that Democrat had beaten a first term Republican in one of the most anticipated races in the country. Tillis, then the State House Speaker, had to get past a GOP primary, in which opponents claimed he was too closely tied to the establishment and not sufficiently conservative. He was lucky to be able to avoid a runoff and then with a strong Republican tailwind in 2014, beat Democrat Kay Hagan 49-47.

Tillis had a bit of a health scare in 2017 while participating in a Washington D.C. public race. He was ok from that incident but has had a bit of an uneasy relationship with conservative activists back home during his time as a Senator. While consistently voting the party line and mostly voicing support for Donald Trump, the Senator has at times angered the backers of the current President especially related to issues involving immigration and Trump's desire to use an Executive Order to build a southern border wall. Republican leaders tried to prevent threats of a primary challenge to Tillis and managed to get some who did announce to leave the race. In the March primary, which took place before the Covid 19 pandemic, Tillis took 78 percent of the vote against three opponents who struggled to raise money or garner attention.

Democrats looked for a candidate who could be competitive statewide even as their bench had become thinner in recent years. Five candidates would make it to the primary, but there would be no need for a runoff as Cal Cunningham, a former State Senator and Iraq War veteran took 57 percent of the vote. Finishing in a distant second with 35 percent was Erica Smith, an African-American State Senator from an area outside the big population centers. Ten years earlier, Cunningham had lost a U.S. Senate primary runoff.

Republicans have claimed that Cunningham is not an A list candidate, but his military background is definitely a benefit in a state with many military installations. Incumbency should help Tillis, but he has always been a figure of some polarization on both sides of the political divide in the state. Most polls have shown Cunningham holding a narrow lead over the incumbent but three from August now have the challenger ahead by anywhere from eight to 10 points.

If those polls are true, this race may already be out of reach. I tend to think there are still some undecided voters who will come home and side with Tillis at the end. The dynamics of the Presidential race in the state will also play a role. Right now, Trump is doing better than Tillis, while also appearing vulnerable to losing a state he took by four points over Hillary Clinton. The challenge for Tillis is to keep the Trump fans who are skeptical of him while not losing too many of the increasing number of more moderate urbanites and suburbanites in the state who are not traditional southern conservatives. I think it is too early to reach any final conclusions on this race, but the task for Tillis may be a tough one.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far:

13 D (4 Safe, 3 Likely, 3 Lean, 3 Tossup) 
12 R (3 Safe, 4 Likely, 3 Lean, 2 Tossup)

Total with predictions thus far:

48 Democrats (35 holdovers, 4 Safe, 3 Likely, 3 Lean, 3 Tossup)
42 Republicans (30 holdovers, 3 Safe, 4 Likely, 3 Lean, 2 Tossup)


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