Republican Senator Thom Tillis won re-election, beating Democrat Cal Cunningham after falling out of the polls for most of the year. It was an unlikely victory made possible by a personal scandal that embroiled the challenger in the final weeks of the campaign.
In early October, text messages were published in the press from a woman with whom Cunningham confirmed that he was having an extramarital affair. The poll has tightened significantly in recent days, and Cunningham is nearly 6 points ahead of less than 2 points by election day.
Tillis made the revelations part of his final argument that Cunningham, who had led as a moderate Democrat in the spirit of popular Governor Roy Cooper, could not be trusted.
“The scandal itself shows that Cunningham does not have the judgment and character required to be a United States Senator, but his inability to apologize for his transgressions and explain them fully makes them worse” said Tillis campaign manager Luke Blanchat in a statement.
Republicans ran ads in the run-up to election day calling Cunningham’s campaign “a big lie”.
The race in North Carolina would always be close. The last three presidential elections in North Carolina were passed with less than 4 percentage points. Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are the only Democratic presidential candidates to win there in modern times. While Donald Trump triumphed in 2016, Cooper won that year too, becoming one of two Democratic governors in the south.
And the 2020 elections always looked like they were imminent. Joe Biden led Trump by about 1 point on the RealClearPolitics poll average. Cunningham asked Tillis less than 2 percentage points.
GOP strategists bet that conservative voters Tillis struggled with would come home for the Republican ticket. They believed Cunningham built a false advantage in early 2020 when he was spending a lot of money on advertising, but the other side was dark.
Part of Tillis’ graduation campaign focused on Cunningham’s character. The GOP also tried to portray him as a stalking horse for the Washington Democrats.
“Cal Cunningham wants to be part of the Democrats of the past, not the future,” Paul Shumaker, a Republican strategist who supports Tillis’ campaign, told Vox. “Cal Cunningham has received a free pass for the past four weeks.”
Tillis’ report gave him problems with both the extreme right and the strictly centrist one. He supported the Senate repeal of Obamacare, which Cunningham combined with Tillis’ opposition to Medicaid’s expansion when he was in state parliament. Tillis tried to convince voters that he supported protecting people with pre-existing conditions, even though the bill he had voted for would have revoked that protection.
He has also argued with Trump over the president, who declared a national emergency along the Mexican border. At first he spoke out against this plan and feared the precedent for a future democratic government. He later turned back and voted to confirm Trump’s plan.
Tillis looked weak year round, but a combination of Cunningham’s indiscretions and North Carolina’s fundamentally competitive nature gave him the opportunity to win a second term.
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