One “Big Time” Tar Heel Senate Race—Democrat Cal Cunningham’s Taking On “Team Red” Trump Clone Thom Tillis May 10, 2020
Because of the COVID-19 virus pandemic, schools throughout the U.S. are rightfully closed. However, even if we are not currently “homeschooling” our children, the rest of us must not forget the arithmetic we learned so long ago, especially when discussing Campaign 2020. The present U.S. Senate lineup gives Majority “Leader” Mitch McConnell’s Trump/GOP a 53-47 advantage in that 100- seat chamber. In order for Democrats to recapture that upper chamber, how many seats do they need to flip “Blue?” Answer: A net gain of 3, should Democrat Joe Biden win the Presidency, since his VP would break any ties in the Senate. Should Biden not win, Democrats would need to gain a net 4 seats to keep VP Pence from breaking Senatorial ties. Presently, the Trump/Mitch gang is trailing or locked in dead heats in at least four states, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Maine. Should these GOP incumbents lose in those states, even if Democrat Doug Jones gets defeated in “Dripping Red” Alabama, where he faces an uphill fight, “Team Blue” would still take the Senate if Biden wins. If one adds recent polling to the mix, popular Montana Democratic Governor Steve Bullock is leading freshman GOP incumbent Steve Daines. A win by Bullock in 11/2020 along with the other four Democrats, would still allow “Team Blue” to recapture the Senate even if Trump prevails and Jones loses (See nytimes.com, Martin & Haberman, 4/25/20, Progress Campaign Poll, Bullock v. Daines, 4/29/20, MT State University, 4/10/20). Many of these GOP Senators’ political fortunes are, additionally, tied to Donald’s popularity. With Demagogue “inject bleach” Donald’s daily self-destruction at his press briefings and the economy in freefall because of this pandemic, GOPers now reasonably fear that their hold on the Senate as well as the Oval office is in danger (See nytimes.com Martin & Haberman). Let’s focus on one of those key contests the race between Democrat Cal Cunningham and GOP Senator Thom Tillis in swing state North Carolina.
Lifelong North Carolinian Cal Cunningham (46) was born in Winston Salem and raised in Lexington. He grew up learning the value of hard work and public service. Cunningham received undergraduate and law degrees from Chapel Hill’s University of North Carolina (calfornc.com/meet-cal). In 11/2000, Cunningham won election to the NC State Senate. He served there from 1/24/01-1/29/03 (4/01, State Legislatures magazine). In the NC Senate, Cunningham voted to start what is now the North Carolina Pre-K that invested in early childhood education, and he pushed for high quality public education (calfornc.com).
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cunningham volunteered to join the U.S. Army Reserve and served three active duty tours, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. He served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG). In 2007, he served as the senior trial counsel, Multi-National Corps-Iraq. He was lead counsel in the first court-martial of a contractor/civilian under the Uniform Code of Military Justice since 1968. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the prestigious Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award work in part for prosecuting contractors for criminal misconduct (calfornc.com, triad.bizjournals.com, Ivey, 3/03/08, ncbar.org, 7/16/11, “MacArthur Leadership Awards-Home Page”). Cunningham graduated from Airborne School and spent three years training special forces at Fort Bragg. He is a Lieutenant Colonel and is presently a member of the U.S. Army Reserve (calfornc.com, JournalNow.com, 6/16/12). NC Dem. Gov. Roy Cooper named Cunningham as Vice-Chair of the Gov.’s Crime Commission. On that commission, Cunningham led efforts to address school gun violence, curb opioid addiction, and fund services for women and families affected by domestic violence and sexual assault. The Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce) awarded Cunningham with the Distinguished Service Award and named him one of that group’s Outstanding Young North Carolinians (kilpatrickstockton.com, calfornc.com).
Cunningham stands for reducing premiums, co-pays, as well as fighting to insure more than one million N. Carolinians without any health care coverage. He will fight to make Medicare negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies. He will oppose any effort to cut Medicare or repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). He is against the top 1% Trump tax cut. He wants to raise the minimum wage and promote good-paying full-time jobs with benefits. He stands for lowering the cost of higher education. He is for reducing carbon pollution. Cunningham has led a nationally-recognized environmental services and waste reduction company based in Raleigh which now employs more than 100 people, and has been endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters. Cunningham is pro-choice and will always defend Roe v. Wade. He strongly opposes defunding Planned Parenthood, which provides health care to thousands of North Carolinians. As an Army veteran and father of two young children, Cunningham understands how to use a firearm but also the need to protect against senseless gun violence. He additionally wants to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens using firearms. Cunningham is for comprehensive immigration reform. He is for providing a fair pathway to citizenship, and helping DREAMERS. He condemns caging and separating children from their parents. Cunningham wants the awful Supreme Ct. Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited sums of money to influence our elections, to be overturned. Cunningham supports the LGBTQ community and is for strongly enforcing civil rights. As a veteran who joined after 9/11, he believes in standing tough against terrorism and enemies like N. Korea, Iran, and Russia (calfornc.com).
Meet Cunningham’s opponent, freshman GOP Senator Thom Tillis (59). Jacksonville, FL native Tillis moved around with his large family 20 times, living in New Orleans, Nashville, and other cities (business.com, Martin, 4/23/12). He took a job as a records clerk and earned a bachelor’s degree at 36 through the mainly online University of Maryland-University College. In 1996, he became a partner in the accounting firm Price Waterhouse. He remained at Price Waterhouse after IBM took it over and advised banks and other corporations. He came to NC in 1998, because of his work for Charlotte-based NationsBank, which later became Bank of America after a merger. Tillis settled in Cornelius, a Charlotte suburb (Cohen & Cook 2020 Political Almanac).
Tillis’ political career took off like a rocket. After serving as a PTA president and town commissioner, he won election to NC’s State House in 2006. Four years later, in 2010, the NC GOP won control of the House for the first time in 20 years and Tillis was elected Speaker in 2011. Tillis was instrumental in this “Red” Tar Heel takeover. He targeted districts and recruited candidates. After 2012, when the NC GOP won the governorship and expanded its legislative majority, Tillis was unanimously re-elected Speaker (Lacour, Charlotte Magazine, 11/2013, WRAL, AP).
Tillis always publicly proclaimed himself a “business-oriented conservative.” However, once in office, besides cutting taxes and being against raising the minimum wage, he also helped state GOPers enact radical social issues. This legislation included allowing guns in bars and on college campuses, and requiring women to watch a narrated ultrasound before having abortions. A federal judge struck the abortion law down. In 2013, Tillis and his NC GOPers repealed a law that allowed citizens to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day, while requiring voters to present one of six state-approved ID cards at the polls. He cut funds for the University of NC and dragged his feet on teachers’ pay. In 2014, Tillis won his primary to oppose Democratic first-term Senator Kay Hagan who won in 2008 when Obama carried NC (Cohen & Cook 2020).
Tillis emphasized his strong opposition to Obamacare and tied Hagan to Obama, then unpopular in NC, for voting for this key bill. Right-wing anti-regulatory Koch Industries saw NC as a “model state” in which to enact its agenda. Koch singularly focused on defeating Hagan and spent over $20 million in ads to defeat her (Cohen & Cook, 2020, Mascaro, LA Times, 5/07/14). In addition, Tillis and the NC Republican party paid Cambridge Analytica, a now defunct and scandal-tarred organization, $345,000. Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm, was backed by super-secretive/ultra-right-wingers Robert and his daughter Rebekah Mercer. Steve Bannon, later Trump’s 2016 controversial alt-right election strategist, was a Cambridge Analytica Vice President. On its website, Cambridge Analytica listed the Tillis-Hagan race as a case study for 2016. In 2016, Cambridge Analytica ultimately helped Trump. In 2014, Cambridge Analytica convinced Tillis to target a sizeable cluster of North Carolinians, many in the military, to emphasize foreign affairs and attack Hagan for failing to take the rise of ISIS seriously as well as the Ebola virus outbreak. In the end, Tillis beat Hagan by 45,000 votes out of 2.9 million cast. The amount spent on this race was $111 million. Many questions have been raised about whether Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Tillis-Hagan race swung this nail biter to Tillis (See Cohen & Cook 2020, wral.com, newsobserver.com).
In the U.S. Senate, Tillis still plays the same “game” he did in the NC Legislature. In 1/2019, the Charlotte Observer noted that Tillis’ political strategy was “Keep those Trump backers happy, but talk a good centrist game in hopes of grabbing enough moderates to win re-election in 2020 (Cohen & Cook 2020).” And Tillis sure does keep those MAGA backers happy while mouthing phony “moderate” talk. As of 11/2019, Tillis has voted with Donald 92.7% of the time, making him one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate (politico.com, Everett 1/18/19). He remains anti-choice and supports giving full legal rights to an embryo at the moment of conception, the so-called “personhood” movement (politico.com, Cunningham, P., votesmart.org). He voted to repeal Obamacare and called health care “not a government responsibility (ontheissues.org).” In 2/2019, Tillis wrote an editorial in the Washington Post opposing Trump’s imposing a national emergency to build a wall on the southern border. When Trump pressured Tillis and he was threatened with a 2020 primary challenge, Tillis caved, read “chickened out.” He reversed his position and voted for Trump’s national emergency declaration (newsobserver.com). Tillis still opposes increasing the minimum wage. He calls global climate change “not a fact (charlotteobserver.com, Morrill et al, charlotteobserver.com).” He opposes marriage equality and legal protections for LGBTQ individuals (charlotteobserver.com). He has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and was its fourth most funded recipient, receiving $4, 418,012 (nytimes.com, Leonhardt, et al, 10/04/07). Loyal “Trumpbot” Tillis, as his opponent Cunningham noted, didn’t even disavow Trump’s dangerous comment that people should ‘’inject themselves with disinfectant.” Cunningham, correctly noted that Tillis lacks a “backbone” even when people’s lives are at risk (calfornc.com, 4/29/20). In this time of coronavirus, a Democratic ad rightly hit Tillis for comments questioning the need for handwashing regulation for restaurant workers (latimes.com, 5/08/20, Hook).
Recent polls have Cunningham leading Tillis by 5, 7, and 9 points (DSCC, PPP, Civiqs). Let’s not get too confident. Nate Silver’s Five ThirtyEight and the Cook Political Report rate this contest a “Toss Up (calfornc.com, 4/28/20).” They have to. NC is politically balanced on a knife’s edge and has been for years. Biden is leading Trump by three points, according to Civiqs’ poll which gives Cunningham a 9-point edge. Yes, urban and suburban voters are strongly in Cunningham’s corner now but the rural tilt heavily for Tillis. The rural voters made the difference in the Tillis-Hagan race and in helping Trump win NC in 2016. With oodles of GOP and Koch money and MAGA rallies he’ll probably soon resume, Donald can easily gin up his base. Again, there are more of us than them, but we have to vote by mail or at the polls in droves plus to oust Trump and Tillis. Turnout in the Tar Heel State and everywhere else remains everything.