Cunningham's Big Cash Haul Signals Perilous Tillis Reelection Bid
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina was outraised nearly 3-to-1 by his Democratic challenger in the last quarter, according to campaign reports that signal a more precarious reelection bid for the Republican in the presidential battleground state.
Cal Cunningham's campaign took in a whopping $7.4 million in the second quarter, compared to $2.6 million by Tillis, according to filings due late Wednesday at the Federal Election Commission. The two campaigns were essentially tied with cash in their coffers starting July 1 — Tillis had almost $6.9 million and Cunningham $6.6 million.
The fundraising for Tillis — slightly more than what he collected in the first quarter — contrasts with Cunningham, whose campaign said he took in the largest quarterly haul ever raised by a North Carolina Senate candidate. The fundraising period began April 1, during the depths of North Carolina's COVID-19 stay-at-home order and weeks after both candidates won their respective primaries.
The money chase results could indicate trouble for Tillis, who is one of a handful of Senate Republicans considered vulnerable this fall. The Democrats need to net four additional seats — or three seats while winning the presidency — to take back control of the Senate.
“If you thought things couldn’t get worse for Sen. Tillis, they just did,” Cunningham campaign manager Devan Barber said in a news release while crowing about the fundraising advantage. She predicted that after November, ”Tillis will be quickly forgotten following a failed Senate career and unbelievably weak candidacy.”
Tillis campaign on Thursday noted that Tillis was outraised by Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014, only to win by just 46,000 votes. Tillis benefited from independent expenditure spending that attacked Hagan’s record, contributing to a race that at the time was the most expensive Senate race in history at $118 million.
Cunningham, a former state senator, Iraq War veteran and 2010 U.S. Senate candidate, was recruited to challenge Tillis by Senate Democrats. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Cunningham in the primary.
Tillis campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo said Tillis will win even if he were outspent.
"Voters are smart and they will reject the extreme liberal agenda that Cunningham, (Senate Minority Leader Chuck) Schumer and his deep-pocketed cronies are trying to force on the people of North Carolina.”
Compared with 2014, Tillis is running as the incumbent during a presidential election year in which President Donald Trump’s approval numbers have dropped during a pandemic and unrest over racial injustice. Trump last year endorsed Tillis, who was later one of the president’s strongest defenders during his impeachment trial and took every opportunity to hitch his wagon to Trump’s.
Tillis has instead emphasized consensus during the COVID-19 crisis. Among the over 50 online town halls he's held during the pandemic, Tillis praised Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order and has consistently supported the wearing of face masks in public.
Cunningham has blasted Tillis for failing to get enough federal COVID-19 aid and resources to North Carolina residents and local governments.
He’s returned consistently to health care. On a conference call last week, Cunningham repeated that Tillis helped pass a law while state House speaker that blocked expansion of Medicaid that could have allowed hundreds of thousands of people to have coverage now. North Carolina remains one of about a dozen states that hasn’t accepted expansion.
“It’s clear that the occupant of this Senate seat has not served the people of North Carolina when we’ve needed it the most,” Cunningham said in a newspaper op-ed this month. “I’m ready to put this seat back to work.”
Tillis has pitched a more personal and populist message during the general election campaign, reminding people that he lived in a trailer park while young and worked to become a partner at IBM. He said the strong economy before the COVID-19 crisis will win over voters.
“I know we’re going to win because people remember how good their lives were in February,” Tillis said at last week’s virtual state GOP convention. The two candidates have agreed to three televised debates, but Tillis has wanted more.
Want to read all of WFAE’s best news each day? Sign up for our daily newsletter, The Frequency, to have our top stories delivered straight to your inbox.