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MEMO: Cal Cunningham Enters Toss-Up NC Senate Race In Strong Position As Thom Tillis Remains Deeply Vulnerable

Washington Republicans suffered their first major loss of the cycle in North Carolina with Army veteran Cal Cunningham’s decisive victory as the Democratic nominee. Despite Mitch McConnell’s failed multi-million dollar meddling effort to protect his most vulnerable incumbent Thom Tillis from having to face this match up, Cal enters the general election in a strong position by all measures: statewide support, polling, fundraising, and a compelling contrast on the most important issues facing North Carolinians like growing our economy, lowering health care costs, and supporting our state’s veterans and military families.

As we move to the general election in what is widely expected to be one of the most competitive and critical races of the cycle, here is what you need to know about the North Carolina Senate race:

Tillis is uniquely vulnerable, with low favorability and anemic fundraising for an incumbent, while Cal is building a strong campaign and polling ahead of Tillis.

  • A new poll released Sunday shows Cal starts the general election leading Tillis by five points. It’s the latest in a series of public polls since Cal entered the race that underscore his strength against the incumbent.
  • According to Morning Consult, just 34 percent of North Carolinians approve of the job Tillis is doing, the lowest approval rating of any incumbent running for reelection, while 37 disapprove of him.
  • Top nonpartisan election analysts including Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Inside Elections, and POLITICO rate this race a toss-up, citing the fact that Tillis’ “personal favorability numbers are not good.”
  • Cal doubled Tillis’ fundraising haul during the pre-primary period, raising nearly $1.4 million to Tillis’ $700,000.
    • During the 43-day pre-primary period, the campaign’s fundraising significantly accelerated, bringing Cal’s cycle total to more than $4.5 million raised.
    • Cal has nearly 12,000 unique North Carolina donors, after gaining nearly 4,000 during the pre-primary period.
  • As noted by the Charlotte Observer in its endorsement, Cal emerges from the primary having built a “diverse coalition of supporters” who are energized to defeat Tillis in the fall. Cal has support from all 100 counties in North Carolina, as well as elected and community leaders throughout the state.

Mitch McConnell’s super PAC wasted $3 million trying to prevent Tillis from facing Cal in November.

  • Don’t take our word on Tillis’ weakness as a candidate — look no further than the $3 million Mitch McConnell’s super PAC spent meddling in the Democratic primary to try to pick Tillis’ opponent for the general election. The fact that McConnell and his Washington allies were willing to invest so much money to avoid running against Cal is proof that they fully understand two things: Tillis is uniquely vulnerable and Cal is in a position to beat him.
  • Republicans’ attempts to spin this major strategic error as a “success” are laughable. It wasn’t. McConnell’s super PAC failed to stop Cal’s momentum, and just weeks after Republicans were wondering whether the primary would go to a runoff, Cal won decisively, and public polling leading up to tonight’s results showed Cal winning across geographies and demographic groups.
  • In addition to failing to prevent a decisive victory, Republicans’ seem to have shot themselves in the foot with their attacks against Cal — which already lacked credibility. After running attack ads against Cal for not supporting policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, Republicans can’t credibly launch false attacks on Cal in the general election over policies they’ve already admitted that he opposes.

While Cal pledges to campaign everywhere, including places where Democrats don’t always win or even go, Tillis is politically stuck — forced to continue trying to shore up his base support while he abandons independent North Carolinians.

  • While Tillis’ most serious primary challenger Garland Tucker dropped out, the fact that he drew one at all, and the lingering lack of support from Republicans, speaks to the real problems still hanging over his reelection bid: Tillis “pleases nobody,” according to one elections forecaster, while “conservatives aren’t happy with him” and “voters of all ideological stripes simply don’t trust Tillis.” That’s why Tucker’s challenge forced Tillis to spend more than $700,000 communicating exclusively with his base, and it’s why he’s drawn the challenge of primary opponents who argue he “betrays conservatives with his vote.” Tucker still has not endorsed Senator Thom Tillis.
  • The Charlotte Observer summarized Tillis’ tough position like this: “Our guess is that he’ll mostly stay aligned with the president. In part it’s because Tillis has lost many moderates for good with his fuller embrace of Trump. In part it’s because Trump has given Republicans like Tillis little choice. You either express fealty, or you risk a presidential tweet and subsequent backlash from Trump supporters.”
  • While Cal Cunningham strategically invested in paid media during the primary to introduce himself to general election voters through biographical and contrast ads focused on issues like corruption and health care, Tillis spent money in his primary to “strengthen his support with the conservative base.”
  • Inside Elections forecasted Cal will be able to appeal to suburban Republicans that Tillis would need to win, “while Trump’s presence on the ballot also helps turn out nonwhite and younger voters who are more likely to participate in a presidential year than a midterm.” They also noted Cal’s “profile will help him over-perform the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, especially because of the appeal of his service in the Army.”

While Tillis continues to place his political interests ahead of North Carolina’s interests, Cal is already proving he will honor North Carolinians’ fierce independence by standing up to his own party when necessary, and working with any President regardless of party when it is right for North Carolina.

  • Tillis was too weak to stand up to the President when $80 million in military funding for North Carolina was on the line. He put partisanship before patriotism when he performed an “Olympic Gold Flip-Flop,” something he still hasn’t recovered from. Cal, who served at Fort Bragg and two tours overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, will always stand up for our state’s veterans and military families.
  • Tillis also put his political survival before the people of our state by repeatedly voting to take away protections from the 1.7 million North Carolinians living with pre-existing conditions and opposing efforts to lower prescription drug costs. Cal is committed to bringing down costs of care and prescription drugs and working to expand the Affordable Care Act.
  • In voting for the GOP tax bill, Thom Tillis prioritized his corporate donors over the people of our state, handing a massive tax break to big corporations and the wealthy, while leaving our state’s families behind. In contrast, Cal is ready to help families and workers keep more of the money they earn by raising wages and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.

As a former Army prosecutor, Cal is running to take on the corruption in Washington that’s kept us from making progress on all the most important issues facing North Carolinians, like making health care and education more affordable and creating an economy that works for everyone. His message is already resonating with voters, which is clear from his commanding primary victory, his support in the polls and in all 100 North Carolina counties, his fundraising strength, and the growing number of endorsements he’s received since launching his campaign to defeat Tillis.