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5.26.20

MEMO: Cal Cunningham In Strong Position As Weak Thom Tillis Tries To Rewrite His Record

TO: Interested Parties 

FROM: Devan Barber, Campaign Manager for Cal Cunningham

DATE: May 26, 2020

RE: Cal Cunningham In Strong Position As Weak Thom Tillis Tries To Rewrite His Record


As Thom Tillis launches his first television ad of the general election from a weak position, in an effort to re-write his unpopular record, Cal Cunningham has maintained his strong momentum in a race that’s expected to be highly competitive” and one of the most expensive in the country. Since the primary, Cal’s campaign has adapted to virtual campaigning and continues to connect with communities across North Carolina, out-paced Tillis in fundraising, and has seen positive trends in polling including a lead with critically important independent voters. Meanwhile, even in the midst of a public health and economic crisis that requires strength and leadership, Tillis has continued to show he is a weak politician who won’t stand up for North Carolinians if it puts him at odds with his party or the corporate special interests in Washington. 

Here’s the state of the North Carolina Senate race as is stands today:

Tillis was forced to burn more than $700,000 during his primary, but that spending didn’t get him very far for the general and now he’s months behind Cal’s strategic investments in positive ads that “raised Cunningham’s name ID in the state” and introduced him to a general election audience. Tillis, whose approval remains dismal, appears to be desperate to re-define himself to voters, as his re-election prospects continue to dim. 

  • Tillis burned more than $700,000 in his primary to try to “strengthen his support with the conservative base.” Unfortunately for Tillis, it didn’t seem to pay off — on primary day in North Carolina, he significantly underperformed President Trump by more than 140,000 raw votes, and even underperformed the Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Forest by 90,000 votes. That means voters checked the box for Trump, voted against Tillis or skipped the U.S. Senate race entirely, and then checked the box for Forest. 
  • The Raleigh News & Observer noted that Cal “was able to advertise on television and travel extensively throughout the state” and that the “campaign’s ads were tailored for a general election.” That meant both introducing Cal to a general election audience, and drawing a contrast between Cal and Tillis on some of the key issues of this race — health care and corruption.

Cal’s message is clearly resonating across North Carolina. He is the first Democratic nominee for Senate in at least a decade to poll ahead of his eventual Republican opponent before clinching the party’s nomination. It’s no wonder “multiple public and private polls have shown a competitive race with Tillis in the danger zone for an incumbent.”

  • In one recent poll, Cal held a 17-point advantage over Tillis among independent voters, a sign Tillis may have “lost many moderates for good with his fuller embrace of Trump.” This will be critical to Cal’s success this fall. Inside Elections, one of the top election forecasters predicted Cal’s “profile will help him over-perform the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, especially because of the appeal of his service in the Army.”

North Carolina’s Senate race is widely seen as one of “the ripest Democratic pickup opportunities” in the country due to its status as the “swingiest of swing states at all levels in 2020.” North Carolina continues to trend in a favorable direction for Democrats, but Cal is taking nothing for granted, continuing to go places Democrats don’t always go to reach voters of all political stripes. 

  • As the Washington Post notes, “Trump won by less than four points in 2016, as Democrats flipped the governor’s mansion and have since made big gains in the legislature…[Tillis] narrowly won his first term six years ago.”  
  • In the days immediately following the primary election, Cal hit the campaign trail for a “Carolina Conversations” tour in Davidson, Rowan, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Union, Moore, and Cumberland Counties to begin to carry out his pledge to go places where Democrats don’t always win or even go. Since then, Cal’s campaign for Senate has continued to make good on that promise by “barnstorming the state online.” 

North Carolina is expected to be “one of the most expensive races in the country” this fall and Cal continues to out-raise Tillis, with Tillis’ team acknowledging its slow fundraising pace in his post-primary memo to supporters. 

  • “Cunningham raised $4.4 million in the first three months of the year, more than double Tillis’ total.” The Tillis campaign responded to Cal’s significant outpacing of Tillis, saying he “will likely be outraised in each quarter from here on out and will need to increase the pace of our fundraising in order to keep up.”
  • If budgets are a reflection of priorities, both parties have made it clear North Carolina’s Senate race is a priority this fall. There is already more than $66 million in spending announced between now and November. 

Tillis remains too weak to stand up to his own party, caving to his party and corporate special interests instead of representing the people of our state. Now, he is seeing the consequences of those actions as he walks a fine line to save his political skin — stand with his party or stand for the public health of North Carolinians. He has consistently stood behind Trump’s handling of our current crisis, while simultaneously attempting to tie himself to Governor Cooper whose strong response has been well-received and gave him a boost in public polls. But voters can see right through it.

  • Tillis seems confident that the federal response to COVID-19 will “benefit the president” and himself in return, as reflected by his completely tonedeaf comments defending the Administration’s response and downplaying any potential negative effects on the race:  
    • Politico: Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), whose race could easily decide the Senate, said Americans won’t necessarily be voting with today’s drumbeat of 2,000 deaths a day and endless quarantines in mind. He predicted by August everything will look different. ‘We’ll be doing million and millions of tests, we’ll do the antibody tests, we’ll have good reports, I think, on the beginnings of economic progress,’ Tillis said. ‘And I think all those things will benefit the president and they’ll benefit me.’”
    • CNN: “Tillis also defended Trump’s shifting predictions of the death toll — from late February when he said US cases would be ‘close to zero’ within a couple days, to now with deaths above 90,000 — as the President continually alters his estimates. ‘Those are people nitpicking on smaller subjects that people are going to be looking at in totality,’ Tillis said.”
    • Tillis told The Hill: “I think the president’s taking every step he can to help the safety of the people in the United States.”
    • WFAE: “So far Tillis has backed the recommendations from the White House coronavirus task force. But when asked about the president’s suggestion that injecting disinfectant might kill the virus, the Tillis campaign did not respond directly, saying only that people who think they are sick should see their doctor.”
  • Political commentators in the state have taken note of this strategy, and Tillis’ inability to sell it to voters: “Senator Tillis, for his part, is seeing a year’s worth of strategy backfire. Having once remade himself into a warrior for Trump, he is now attempting a second reinvention as an admirer of the popular Democrat Cooper. Based on the last month’s opinion polling, his slipperiness has not impressed North Carolina voters.”
  • For Tillis, he won’t only own the botched response of the federal government, he’ll also endure a continued spotlight on his time in the North Carolina general assembly that won’t do him any favors: “As Tillis closely aligns himself with Trump, Democrats aren’t just planning to seize on Tillis’ record in the U.S. Senate, they are also delving into his tenure leading the North Carolina state House, where he opposed Medicaid expansion and was part of a Republican effort to reduce the state’s unemployment benefits — two things now hurting North Carolina residents out of work.”

Cal continues to connect with North Carolinians, holding dozens of virtual town halls, round tables, and other events with communities across the state. He’s continuing to listen to the concerns of North Carolinians and state his priorities for the federal government’s response to COVID-19 — from expanding Medicaid and providing support to families, small businesses, and North Carolina cities and towns that are struggling, to expanding rural broadband and ensuring North Carolina’s tax dollars are properly being used during this crisis.