Will North Carolina re-elect Republican Senator Thom Tillis for a second term? That’s a question a lot of North Carolinians and pundits around the country are asking these days.
Besides the presidential election, there is a lot riding on the results of next Tuesday’s election. A Tillis victory can help Republicans preserve their majority in the Senate for at least the next two years. Meanwhile, a Cal Cunningham victory combined with victories in three or four other key states could transfer control of the Senate to Democrats.
Conservatives are concerned. A Tillis victory won’t be easy. Unless your name is Jesse Helms, over the last 40 years North Carolinians have had a history of electing one-term senators. When Richard Burr was re-elected in 2010, he became the first North Carolina U.S. Senator other than Helms to win re-election since Sam Ervin Jr. in 1968. The list of senators whose careers were relegated to the political graveyard after one term includes luminaries like Elizabeth Dole, Lauch Faircloth, Robert Morgan, Jim Broyhill and Terry Sanford. Many think former senator and former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards would have been added to the list, had he not left to make a presidential run in 2008.
Meanwhile, in the contest for the state legislature, Democrats and Republicans both make a case for victory in North Carolina. The Republican case is compelling. Conservative majorities in the legislature over the past decade and a Republican governor for four of those years have spurred tax reform, a strong economy and helped to make the state an increasingly popular destination for jobseekers and companies alike. North Carolina Democrats question those assertions and say the state is trending blue. They point to a century of Democrat domination of state politics, the likely re-election of the Democratic governor, gains in the legislature and almost 300,000 more registered voters than Republicans. The competing visions may only succeed in turning North Carolina purple.
Polling data reflects these divides and cross currents. According to Real Clear Politics, aside from two brief periods that coincided with the national unrest over George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, Tillis has consistently trailed in polls and reflected numbers worthy of the designation as one of the most vulnerable Republican senators.
According to Real Clear Politics, Cunningham’s lead began to swell after June 22 and reached as high as 10 points around July 31.
However, events in the last month have tightened those numbers. In early October, Tillis tested positive for coronavirus after attending the nomination ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett at the White House on September 26. A few days later, news accounts revealed that Cunningham had an extramarital relationship with the wife of a military officer; an allegation Cunningham later admitted. By the end of the month, the Civitas Poll had Cunningham ahead 46 to 43 while the Real Clear Politics average had Cunningham over Tillis by 47.1 percent to 45 percent. This is a long way of saying something that we all expected; the race tightened.
So, who is going to win? That’s a difficult question to answer. In my view the winner will be the one who is best able to respond to the electoral changes and challenges of the last six years. The changes include:
2020 is a Presidential Election Year. Presidential election years always drive up turnout. In 2014, neither Thom Tillis nor Kay Hagan received a plurality of votes. Tillis won the seat by besting Hagan by a mere 46,000 votes out of 2.9 million votes cast. Less than 45 percent (44.3 percent) of the electorate turned out to vote. Turnout will be much higher in 2020. According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, as of October 29, about 54 percent of the electorate has already voted either by mail or in-person early voting.
Another key difference between 2014 and 2020 is the lack of a viable third-party candidate. Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh captured 109,000 votes (3.74 percent) and was widely considered to have taken votes from Tillis in 2014. Again, Tillis’s margin of victory was only about 46,000 votes. The expected larger turnout and greater focus on the two major candidates will only serve to magnify their messages as well as their strengths and weaknesses.
The Electorate Is Different. In 2020, North Carolina has almost 700,000 more registered voters than it did in 2014. Not only are there more voters, but the composition of voters is different than it was in 2014. Since 2014, Democrats have lost 160,000 registrants, Republicans have added 195,000 and unaffiliated voters have added about 617,000 to their ranks. Over the same time, the percentage of registered Democrats declined from 43.4 percent to 38.6 percent in 2020. The percentage of Republicans also declined, falling from 34.5 percent in 2014 to 31.2 percent in 2020. Both changes were driven by increases in the percentage of unaffiliated voters, which increased from 21.7 percent (2014) to 29.6 percent in 2020.
In my view, the steady growth of unaffiliated voters – and how candidates respond to them – will be the single biggest factor in determining the outcome of the race. In 2014, Tillis won 49.3 percent of unaffiliateds to Hagan’s 41.6 percent. Cross tabs from the recent Civitas Poll show Tillis receiving support from about 41 percent of unaffiliateds while Cunningham receives 44.7 percent, with 9 percent still undecided. Those numbers could prove troubling for Tillis.
Politicians and pollsters try to manage these variables to their advantage and some factors are largely outside of their control. The turnout of Trump voters surprised many pollsters in 2016 and prompted a lot of head scratching. Will a Trump turnout aid Tillis and other down ballot Republican candidates? A lot of pundits are anxious to find out. A second similar turnout might also help to upend the polling industry.
We’ll know the answer to the Tillis-Cunningham question next week – and we’ll feel the ramifications of that election for years to come.