By Joe DeMartin ’21 (he/him), Senior Political Correspondant
North Carolina’s race for U.S. Senate is one of the most hotly contested in all of the country. Democrats are looking at North Carolina as the seat that will potentially bring them the majority come November 3rd, and Republicans see North Carolina as crucial to their re-election hopes.
The idea of an October Surprise is pretty common in politics. But to say this month has been a whirlwind for the North Carolina Senate race would be an understatement.
It all started on Friday, October 2nd.
That evening, Senator Tillis announced he had tested positive for COVID-19. Tillis began quarantining in his North Carolina home and initiated contact tracing for those with whom he had been in close contact. In an interview following his diagnosis with WRAL news, Tillis admitted, “I let my guard down… even when you think you’re in a safe setting you should always wear a mask.” Tillis was present with a mask at the outdoor Rose Garden Ceremony but without one at the indoor White House reception for the newest Supreme Court Nominee, Amy Coney Barrett—a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While Tillis does not believe he contracted the virus at the event, many now presume that the celebration for Judge Barret was a “superspreader event.”
Tillis’s diagnosis had ramifications for the timeline of Judge Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Tillis is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Barrett is currently undergoing questioning for her confirmation hearing. In order to pass through the Judiciary Committee’s hearing and move onto a larger vote from the full Senate, Barrett would need to garner a majority of the votes from the members of the Judiciary Committee. But according to Senate rules, members would have to be present in person to nominate Judge Barrett and push her nomination through to the entirety of the Senate. While it now appears as though Judiciary Republicans will have enough votes to confirm Barrett both in the full Senate and the Judiciary Committee, there were doubts as to whether there would be enough healthy Republicans to vote to confirm. Democrats have raised questions about the safety of the hearings as well as Republicans’ priority to confirm a Supreme Court Justice rather than pass a COVID-19 relief package.
While his opening statement on Monday was virtual, on Tuesday, Tillis was present in-person at the confirmation hearings. Tillis’s opening statement focused mostly on Judge Barrett’s qualifications for the court, including her “widely respected” work on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. He also noted her conservative credentials as a clerk for the late Justice Scalia.
In his questioning Tuesday, Tillis first introduced into the record a letter from his primary care physician stating he was in compliance with Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) guidelines and was safe to be present in the Capitol. In a slightly strange moment, Tillis introduced tweets that criticized Judge Barrett as a “white colonizer” and “handmaid” to prove that criticisms of her had gone too far. No members of the Judiciary Committee had made remarks in that vein.
About the biggest issue of the hearings, Tillis called Obamacare flawed and talked about its broken promises, but he also said that every person should have affordable healthcare. Ultimately, Tillis ended the first day with about 20 of his allotted 30 minutes of questioning remaining.
In his next round of questions, Senator Tillis asked Barrett about the constitutionality of lockdowns on religious institutions but did not get any specific response from the nominee. Tillis also, in a broad statement about getting out the vote, misstated that election day was November 11th rather than November 3rd. A vote on Judge Barrett’s nomination is expected on Thursday, and Tillis has already expressed his support for the nominee.
Cunningham has had his own scandal erupt in recent weeks in the form of an extramarital relationship. On the same day of Tillis’s COVID diagnosis, text messages of an explicit nature between Cunningham and Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations strategist from California, were leaked to NationalFile.com. The scandal only worsened for Cunningham when Guzman Todd later revealed to the Associated Press that the two had intimate contact in his family home in North Carolina in July.
The Army Reserve announced an investigation into Cunningham. According to Army Reserve spokesman Lt. Col. Simon Flake, “The Army Reserve is investigating the matters involving Lt. Col. James Cunningham. As such, we are unable to provide further details at this time.” According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adultery is “clearly unacceptable conduct” that may “bring discredit upon the armed forces.”
Cunningham has apologized for his extramarital activity, including publicly at an event sponsored by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters: “I am deeply sorry for the hurt I have caused in my personal life, and I also apologize to all of you. I hope each of you watching at home accept this sincere apology and that we will continue to work together to change the direction of our country and strengthen our state.”
Despite both senators’ appearance in the headlines, high-quality polls taken right after Tillis’s diagnosis and Cunningham’s scandal have shown little, if any, movement in the race. A Monmouth University Poll released on October 13th shows Cunningham at 49 percent and Tillis at 44 percent. That represents an increase of two points for Cunningham and a decrease of one point for Tillis from the last Monmouth poll from September. A similarly high rated pollster, SurveyUSA/WRAL, had the race at 49 percent for Cunningham and 39 percent for Tillis in their poll released on October 12th. The change from WRAL’s September poll exactly mirrors the change in the Monmouth poll—plus two points for Cunningham and minus one point for Tillis.
However, some newer polls have the race tightening over the past week. The New York Times/Siena poll released on October 14th, which includes minor party candidates, has Cunningham at 41 percent and Tillis at 37 percent. An Emerson Poll from the 15th has Cunningham up one: 45 percent to 44 percent. And an ABC News/Washington Post poll from October 20th has Cunningham up by two just two points: 49 percent to 47 percent.
The RealClearPolitics unweighted poll average has Cunningham ahead by 3.2 percent. The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate the race as a Toss Up, and FiveThirtyEight gives Cunningham a 66 percent chance of winning.
The bottom line: this race is close and your voice matters. So get out and vote!