Republican Sen. Thom Tillis has won reelection, defeating Democrat Cal Cunningham after trailing in the polls for most of the year. It was an unlikely win made possible by a personal scandal that ensnared the challenger in the last weeks of the campaign.
Text messages from a woman with whom Cunningham acknowledged he’d had an extramarital affair were released in the press in early October. The polling tightened significantly in the last days, with a nearly 6-point lead for Cunningham shrinking to less than 2 points by Election Day.
Tillis made the revelations part of his closing argument that Cunningham, who had run as a moderate Democrat in the vein of popular Gov. Roy Cooper, could not be trusted.
“The scandal itself shows that Cunningham lacks the judgment and character necessary to be a United States Senator, but his inability to apologize and fully account for his transgressions makes them even worse,” Tillis campaign manager Luke Blanchat said in a statement.
Republicans ran ads in the lead-up to Election Day framing Cunningham’s campaign as “one big lie.”
The North Carolina race was always going to be close. The last three presidential elections have been decided in North Carolina by less than 4 percentage points; Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are the only Democratic presidential candidates to win there in the modern era. While Donald Trump triumphed in 2016, Cooper also won that year, becoming one of two Democratic governors in the South.
And the 2020 election always looked like it would be close. Joe Biden led Trump by about 1 point in the RealClearPolitics polling average; Cunningham was polling less than 2 percentage points ahead of Tillis.
GOP strategists were betting that conservative voters, with whom Tillis had struggled, would come home to the Republican ticket. They believed Cunningham had built up a false advantage in early 2020 when he was spending big on ads but the other side was dark.
Part of Tillis’s closing campaign focused on Cunningham’s character. The GOP also tried to depict him as a stalking horse for Washington Democrats.
“Cal Cunningham wants to appear to be part of the Democrats of the past, not of the future,” Paul Shumaker, a Republican strategist supporting Tillis’s campaign, told Vox. “Cal Cunningham has been given a free pass until the last four weeks.”
Tillis’s record gave him problems with both the far right and the rigidly centrist. He supported Obamacare repeal in the Senate, which Cunningham lumped together with Tillis’s opposition to Medicaid expansion when he was in the state legislature. Tillis tried to persuade voters he supported protecting people with preexisting conditions even though the bill he had voted for would have rolled back those protections.
He also feuded with Trump over the president declaring a national emergency along the Mexican border. First he expressed opposition to that plan, fearing the precedent it would set for a future Democratic administration; he later reversed and voted to affirm Trump’s plan.
Tillis looked weak throughout the year, but a combination of Cunningham’s indiscretions and North Carolina’s fundamentally competitive nature gave him an opening to win a second term.