Tillis challenger Cunningham raises nearly $4.4M in first quarter

Outside money also focused on pivotal North Carolina Senate race

The race for North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis’ seat is drawing lots of campaign cash.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The race for North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis’ seat is drawing lots of campaign cash. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 14, 2020 at 5:50pm

Democrat Cal Cunningham, who is seeking to unseat North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis in November, will report raising nearly $4.4 million during the first quarter of 2020, his campaign told CQ Roll Call. 

Cunningham, who won the state’s March 3 primary, finished that month with about $3 million in his bank account as candidates face an increasingly uncertain fundraising environment because of the coronavirus pandemic. The race is among the nation’s most competitive Senate contests and is drawing significant expenditures from super PACs and other outside groups.

Tillis’ campaign has not yet released its fundraising totals from the first quarter, but the incumbent reported $5.4 million in cash on hand as of Feb. 12, according to disclosures with the Federal Election Commission. Through Dec. 31, the most Tillis raised for his reelection effort in a single quarter was $1.9 million. Overall, he has raised nearly $6.9 million between Jan. 1, 2019, and Feb. 12, 2020, FEC records show. 

Tillis has also entered into joint fundraising ventures with other vulnerable GOP incumbents, including Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Tillis-Cunningham race a Toss-up.  

“Democrats got the candidate they wanted,” said Doug Heye, who has worked on three GOP Senate campaigns in North Carolina, including for the state’s senior senator, Richard M. Burr.

Cunningham is an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and a former state senator.

“So much of this race comes down to Donald Trump,” added Heye, a senior vice president with the firm CRAFT | Media/Digital, who grew up in North Carolina. The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis make “it really hard to predict.”

Republicans have scheduled their quadrennial nominating convention for Charlotte, North Carolina, starting Monday, Aug. 24, though even that remains uncertain because of COVID-19. 

[The North Carolina Senate race is one of the premier Senate races in the country]

Outside money 

Cunningham’s primary opponent, Erica Smith, was the beneficiary of heavy spending from a GOP outside group tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, forcing Cunningham and Democratic groups to spend during the primary.

Republican-aligned super PACs, such as the Senate Leadership Fund, and their Democratic counterparts, including the Senate Majority PAC, have already announced they will make major investments, worth some $50 million, in the general election.

Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative group, has disclosed numerous recent buys supporting Tillis, including $55,000 in early April on digital advertising. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee said it would devote more than $7 million to the contest beginning in July, according to a report in Politico

Close race

Recent public polls have indicated it is likely to be a close race. 

While Cunningham’s fundraising totals represent a big haul in the first quarter, other Senate challengers have posted even bigger numbers.

Democrat Mark Kelly, who is running against Republican Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona, said his campaign collected $11 million in the first quarter and has nearly $20 million in cash on hand. 

The Cunningham campaign said 97 percent of its donations have come in increments of less than $200. 

Cunningham has pledged to reject donations from corporate PACs and has received the endorsement of the group End Citizens United, which tracks such pledges.

“Cal Cunningham wants to fight the culture of corruption in Washington that politicians like Mitch McConnell and Thom Tillis have created,” said Patrick Burgwinkle
of End Citizens United. McConnell is also up for reelection this year in Kentucky.

Cunningham campaign manager Devan Barber said in an email that “the first quarter saw a major increase in North Carolina grassroots donors looking to get involved.”

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