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Dems Nominate Cunningham To Face Incumbent Sen. Tillis

Cal Cunningham says key issues are health care, education, climate change and economic opportunity.
Cal Cunningham campaign
Democratic Senate nominee Cal Cunningham says key issues are health care, education, climate change and economic opportunity.

Cal Cunningham easily won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate Tuesday, beating four other Democrats for the right to challenge incumbent Republican Senator Thom Tillis in November.

Cunningham is a former state Senator and Army reserve veteran who now runs an environmental consulting firm in Raleigh. He outraised his Democratic opponents and was the frontrunner leading up to the primary. 

With 96% of precincts counted, he had 57% of the vote, according to unofficial results. State Senator Erica Smith was a distant second, with 35%. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller, Raleigh physician Atul Goel, and Steve Swenson of Harnett County all had less than 4%. 

In his Republican primary, Tillis got 78% of the vote to easily beat three challengers - Paul Wright, Larry Holmquist and Sharon Hudson. 

Promising Change

In a Raleigh victory speech, Cunningham said he wants to fight political and financial corruption, raise wages, improve health care and deal with climate change.  

“Tonight, we’re one step closer to replacing Thom Tillis in the United States Senate … one step closer to replacing his partisanship with our patriotism," he said. 

He pledged to meet voters across the state.  “I'm going to go places that haven't seen a candidate and certainly haven't seen a Democrat in entirely too long. And I'm going to talk to folks who don't always agree,” he said.

Cunningham plans to be in Charlotte late Wednesday afternoon, after stops in Lexington, Salisbury and Concord. 

Cunningham was raised in Lexington and now lives in Raleigh. He served a term in the state Senate in the early 2000s, and had lost the 2010 Democratic Senate primary to Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. 

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis

Close Race Ahead

Two late-February polls suggest Tillis and Cunningham  are in for a close race. One from East Carolina University gave Tillis an edge, 44% to 42%, among registered voters. But Cunningham led in an NBC News/Marist Poll of North Carolina adults, 48% to 43%. 

On the campaign trail, Cunningham ran as much against Tillis as against his fellow Democrats. He talked about expanding access to health care, improving economic opportunity and education, fighting climate change, and safeguarding women's health. 

Tillis has a money advantage entering the general election campaign. He has raised $10.3 million, to Cunningham's $4.7 million this election cycle. 

In a statement, Tillis said his race with Cunningham will present stark differences on the issues: "I want to keep working with President Trump to create jobs, boost wages, secure winning trade deals, rebuild our military, improve health care for veterans, combat sanctuary cities, and confirm well-qualified judges to the federal bench."  

He said he and Cunningham have agreed to five debates.  

Libertarian Shannon Bray and Kevin Hays of the Constitution Party also will be on the November ballot.