Update 8/6/2020: The original version of this article stated that Cal Cunningham continues to work part-time for WasteZero.

November is now less than three months away, which means that candidates are releasing campaign ads to try and win over voters or mobilize their bases. One of the most highly anticipated races in the state is for the US Senate seat in North Carolina between Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham and Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis. Cunningham, who was born in Winston-Salem, served as a state senator from 2001-03 and ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 2010, losing in the primary to Elaine Marshal, after a runoff. Now, Cunningham is running against Tillis, who has held the seat since 2015, in one of the key races that will determine which party controls the US Senate.

Republican attack ad claims Cunningham benefited from PPP; Cunningham pushes back

The race between the two veteran politicians remained fairly quiet amid the pandemic until a few weeks ago, when a political attack ad aimed at Cunningham was pulled from North Carolina TV stations after Cunningham’s campaign stated that the ad wasn’t factually correct. The ad, which was paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tied Cunningham to a Paycheck Protection Program loan obtained by his former employer, WasteZero. Cunningham served as the vice president and general counsel for the Raleigh-based waste-reduction company starting in 2013, according to the company’s website, but Cunningham’s campaign told the Charlotte Observer he left the position on March 20, although he continues to be available to the company as an independent contractor on an hourly basis.

The gist of the political ad, which began running on July 28, opens with a shot of Cunningham stating during a Spectrum News interview that PPP funding has sometimes “ended up in some of the wrong hands.” The 30-second ad then goes on to state that WasteZero, where Cunningham was formerly employed, obtained $2 million in PPP funding in May. Cunningham’s campaign told the Charlotte Observer that he hasn’t received any compensation of financial benefit from the PPP program and that he wasn’t involved in the application process.

A WRAL fact-check found Tillis’ claim that Cunningham benefitted from WasteZero’s PPP loans to be “half true” because Cunningham has criticized the way the program was implemented but that evidence to show that he benefited could not be found.

In early July, Tillis helped introduce a bipartisan bill which would allow forgiveness for small business PPP loans of $150,000 or less.

“The Paycheck Protection Program played a crucial role in supporting small businesses and saving jobs for hardworking North Carolinians,” Tillis said in a news release. “I am proud to co-introduce this bipartisan legislation that will help small businesses save thousands of dollars by allowing forgiveness of their PPP loan and use those funds to help restart our economy.”

The attack ad was reworked by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to say that “wrong hands are tied to Cal Cunningham” rather than “those wrong hands were Cal Cunningham’s” and went back up on July 31.

Funding and polling shows Cunningham in lead

Cunningham’s campaign website says the Republican attack ad was orchestrated because recent poll numbers show Cunningham leading his opponent. Analyses by FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics currently show Cunningham leading Tillis by about 9 points in the upcoming race. FiveThirtyEight categorizes the race as a “toss-up.”

Kay Hagan passed away in October 2019 from complications of Powassan virus, at the age of 66. (file photo)

When it comes to funding, Cunningham again leads Tillis by a wide margin. According to July quarterly finance filings, the Cunningham campaign raised $7.4 million in the second quarter of the year, nearly tripling Tillis’ total fundraising amount of $2.6 million for the same timeframe. According to Federal Election Commission data, Cunningham’s campaign has raised more than $15.1 million since June 2019 and currently has about $6.6 million ending cash on hand. Tillis’ campaign, on the other hand, has raised $14.3 million since 2015. The Tillis campaign has $6.8 million ending cash on hand. And despite the fact that Tillis has slightly more cash on hand than Cunningham, reports show that the challenger has consistently raised more than Tillis this year. Cunningham’s whopping $7.4 million haul breaks the previous quarterly fundraising record in the state, which was set by former Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, who raised $4.8 million in the third quarter of her 2014 reelection bid before she lost to Tillis.

thom tillis
Thom Tillis’ polling numbers have been falling lately. (file photo)

One reason Tillis’ polling numbers could be trailing is his close connection to President Trump, whose own ratings have fallen in the last several months. As voters associate Republican candidates with the president, Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic may impact how voters view Tillis, who has aligned himself closely with the president. According to data from FiveThirtyEight, Trump has a 54.6 disapproval rating that is climbing and a 41.4 approval rating that is sinking. FiveThirtyEight also shows that Tillis’ career score, measuring how often he votes in line with Trump’s positions, is 93.4 percent. Recent polling numbers compiled by RealClearPolitics also mostly give a leg-up to Democratic challenge Joe Biden for many states, with North Carolina favoring Biden by 4 points according to a CBS News/YouGov poll. Watching the trends, David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College recently told the Christian Science Monitor: “Tillis is in the same boat as some other [Republican] senators who are in trouble. They are all trying to walk this tightrope and it’s a challenging tightrope to walk.”

According to CSM’s report, Tillis has balanced singing the president’s praises in some instances, like during the state’s GOP convention in early July, which was livestreamed on Facebook, with distancing himself in political television ads and during townhall events.

“Maybe in rural places Tillis will show up” said McLennan, “but if the president shows up in Raleigh or Charlotte, maybe Tillis will have something else to do that day, like wash his hair.”

Tillis and Cunningham, and the coronavirus

As the coronavirus surged through the nation and the state, both Cunningham and Tillis announced plans for how best to tackle the pandemic. Tillis, who unveiled a 13-page plan on his website on July 23, outlined action items such as finding ways to increase domestic production of personal protection equipment for healthcare workers, and expediting approval and deployment of testing, and promotion of faster treatment and cures for the virus. Tillis was one of few Republicans who supported Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home restrictions in March, and one of the few to mention early on the importance of wearing masks, which the Republican party and the president resisted.

Tillis, who outlined his plan about a week ago, has been criticized by his opponent for not being more vocal on issues surrounding the coronavirus from the beginning. As early as March 9, Cunningham’s campaign was posting news releases on its website calling for Tillis to ask the federal government to deliver test kits to our state. In May, Cunningham released his own plan for tackling COVID-19, including several action items in line with Tillis’ July 23 plan. Calls for widespread testing and more PPE as well as providing financial support for research institutions to develop vaccines were also seen Tillis’ recent plan.

Challenger Cal Cunningham has been leading Sen. Thom Tillis
in recent polls. (file photo)

Differences between Tillis and Cunningham’s plans lie in their approaches to how best to take care of families financially. Cunningham’s plan includes safety-net measures like building upon the Affordable Care Act and expanding tax credits, while Tillis’ plan focuses more on businesses rather than individuals and families, like his “Back to Work Child Care Grants Act of 2020,” which would provide nine months of financial assistance for daycares. Cunningham’s plan calls on an expansion of paid sick and family leave for employees.

Another key difference between the two candidates’ plans is Cunningham’s attention to the way COVID-19 has affected communities of color. As the pandemic continues to surge in the state, data has consistently shown that Black and Brown communities are disproportionately affected by the virus. Cunningham argues for better data collection on racial and ethnic demographics for COVID-19 as well as building on the Affordable Care Act to help close coverage gaps for Black Americans to access healthcare.

On July 14, Tillis stirred up controversy when he said during a tele-town hall that Latinx people are less likely to wear a mask and adhere to social-distancing measures. The audio clip, which was released by Democratic super PAC American Bridge, captures Tillis saying, “One of the concerns that we’ve had more recently is that the Hispanic population now constitutes about 44 percent of the positive cases, and we do have some concerns that in the Hispanic population we’ve seen less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask.”

Almost immediately, Tillis faced a backlash from Democratic representatives on Twitter, including Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, who argued that Latinx individuals are more likely to get coronavirus because they tend to be frontline workers in industries like meat processing and construction where it’s difficult to maintain social distancing.

Questions to Tillis’ office were not returned in time for publication.

Early voting will start on Oct. 15. Election Day is on Nov. 3. For more election coverage, visit triad-city-beat.com/category/election-2020.

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