Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham speaks to supporters in March 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) Election 2020 North Carolina
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham speaks to supporters in March 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Every vote counts in pivotal North Carolina Senate race, political expert says.

It is too early to tell what, if any, impact the latest plot twists in North Carolina’s wild US Senate race will have on voters, political observers told Cardinal & Pine this week. 

The race between incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham has the power to shift access to affordable healthcare, economic recovery plans from the COVID-19 crisis, and more, not to mention partisan control of the US Congress’ upper chamber.

Polls from earlier this year showed a tight race with Cunningham in the lead. But then came last weekend.

Tillis Comes Down with COVID-19

First came news that Tillis had contracted COVID-19, potentially from the White House event where President Donald Trump announced Amy Coney Barrett would be his US Supreme Court pick. Tillis was in attendance as a member of the important Senate Judiciary Committee and also photographed inside the White House not wearing a mask as he talked with Barrett. It was also the second time Tillis had been at the White House without a mask during this pandemic; he was photographed at Trump’s Republican nomination without a mask while in a crowd of people, according to the AP

More than 210,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 to date, including 3,722 people in North Carolina.  Public health experts have repeatedly stressed the way to stem the spread of the highly contagious recommendations is to remain six feet from others and wear masks, especially when indoors. 

Tillis again apologized for not wearing a mask, in an interview with WRAL-TV in Raleigh. 

“It’s just another experience that tells me, even when you think you’re in a safe setting, you should always wear a mask,” he told WRAL

Cunningham Texts’ Revealed

Then a right-wing website released screenshots last Friday of flirtatious text messages between Cunningham and a California woman. Cunningham, a married father of two, acknowledged the veracity of the texts and apologized for his actions in a statement. It’s unclear how the images were obtained. 

Cunningham subsequently cancelled an appearance at a planned virtual town hall this Monday and had not had a public appearance until Wednesday, when he addressed the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters at their annual awards event and offered an apology for his actions, according to the News & Observer. 

Cunningham stressed the significance of his election, saying “We can all agree that this is, by far, the most important election of our lifetime.” 

Cunningham again expressed remorse during a Friday press conference with reporters and reiterated that he does not see this election as a referendum on his character. 

“I have taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life. I have apologized for it,” Cunningham said. He also said, “North Carolinians are looking for somebody who is going to take on the monumental challenges in front of us.” 

According to the AP, NC Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin renewed his endorsement of Cunningham. Gov Roy Cooper did the same earlier this week in a press conference he held. 

“The fact is that there’s only one candidate who has blocked Medicaid expansion, voted to end protections for people with preexisting conditions, and enabled this administration’s bungled response to this pandemic, which is why North Carolina will send Cal to the U.S. Senate next month,” Goodwin said Thursday.

Tillis, meanwhile, is now isolating at home, and only had a few days of mild symptoms that have since lifted, his staff reported.  

 Polling conducted by the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling after news of Cunningham’s text became public seems to suggest little change by most voters. The poll conducted on Sunday and Monday found that among non-Trump voters, 80% said the news about Cunningham would not change their vote in the Senate race. 

Chris Cooper is a Western Carolina University political science professor who closely tracks North Carolina’s politics.

The US Senate race, though significant, wasn’t terribly captivating for most voters going into the election, Cooper said. Tillis had some of the worst favorability ratings for a senator going into the election, and Cunningham also wasn’t well-known by many voters, he said.

Cooper expects the bigger-picture issues—such as the presidential race and the possibility to decide the focus of the next US Senate—to be what drives many voters this fall.  While Tillis has largely aligned himself with President Donald Trump during this election, Cunningham has stressed he will join other Senate Democrats to push for a more robust federal responses to the COVID-19 public health crisis and a broader economic stimulus plan for struggling Americans 

“There’s no evidence to suggest this is going to move Democrats,” Cooper said. “I don’t even think it will hurt mobilization because there is so much more on the ballot.”

Cooper said he expects the race to be close, making every vote count.

“This is a race that could be decided at the margins,” Cooper said.

More than 400,000 North Carolinians have already cast their votes by mail, and in-person voting can happen during the early voting period beginning Oct. 15 and on Election Day, Nov. 3.