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North Carolina Senate Race Thrown into Uncertainty by New Events

By Ty Brown


While we were all focused on the October surprises of the Presidential Campaign, the North Carolina US Senate race was rocked by two of its own in quick succession. Incumbent Republican Thom Tillis tested positive for COVID-19, and within a few hours, Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham admitted to exchanging romantic texts with a woman other than his wife.


After Thom Tillis tested positive for COVID-19, he entered isolation, left the campaign trail, and closed down his campaign’s physical headquarters temporarily to stop further spread. That means his diagnosis will have at least some effect on the race because of the major disruption to his campaign while voting is ongoing. However, I’d like to focus on the political implications of Tillis’s positive test rather than its immediate impacts on his campaign operation. Those implications mirror what we’ve seen at the top of the ticket, with a positive test showing that the virus remains an imminent threat to the health and safety of all Americans, no matter how powerful they are, and that it’s hard to keep the focus off the virus. Tillis is left bringing the virus with him everywhere he goes, both literally and figuratively. In another parallel with the top of the ticket, Tillis and Cunningham had an in-person debate shortly before Tillis tested positive. Cunningham has since tested negative for the virus.


The texting scandal Cal Cunningham is now embroiled in has fewer parallels on the national stage. As events that can be reasonably described as sex scandals go, this one was extremely tame. Nothing in the revealed texts is particularly objectionable, which leaves little to complicate the decision voters have to make about whether Cunningham’s infidelity affects their vote. The leaked texts show nothing more explicit than kissing. Cunningham’s scandal asks whether voters care about infidelity, and absolutely nothing else.


Public Policy Polling took the first (entirely) post-events poll that we have of the race so far. It shows Cunningham leading by six points, 48-42, almost exactly in line with RCP’s 6.5 point polling average. As for those who indicated that Cunningham’s texting scandal made them less likely to vote for him, Tillis was already leading the group 79-10. 58 percent of voters indicated they had already heard the news about Cunningham’s scandal. The second poll showed an even larger lead for Cunningham of 10 points. The provided summary of the poll’s findings begins by declaring that any damage to Cunningham’s image from the scandal is not apparent in his polling, and 61% of voters said that the scandal would not affect their vote.


So what’s the takeaway from those polls? Cunningham’s scandal hasn’t dramatically reshaped the race. Perhaps in a world where the incumbent President of the United States has done much worse, much more famously, and much more often, an unexciting sex scandal just doesn’t have that much of an impact upon voters’ opinions. Tillis voters may be happy to have another reason to believe they’re making the right choice, but I can hardly say I’m surprised that independents and Cunningham voters don’t seem to care that much.


Perhaps all this is just another example of what would have been big news in every other election simply being more noise in 2020. But that doesn’t stop these events from posing interesting questions about voters’ perspectives and just what can still change a politician’s share of the vote.



Ty Brown is a freshman from the suburbs of Seattle studying political science.



Note: The GW College Democrats News & Blog Committee’s mission is to highlight, empower, and facilitate the political expression of its members. As such, the views expressed in this article are based on the opinions of its author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the whole of GW College Democrats, its executive board, or its deputy director board.