As the North Carolina Senate race hits a pivotal stretch, the VoteVets super PAC is launching a $2.7 million ad campaign to boost Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham’s bid to unseat Sen. Thom Tillis.
Cunningham, who served active duty tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army Reserve, has led Tillis in recent polls. The new ad buy is the latest effort by outside groups that have already flooded the state with nearly $40 million in independent expenditures. The race, rated a Toss-up by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, will help determine which party controls the Senate next year.
The VoteVets ads won’t be the only new paid message North Carolina voters will get this week. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity is also launching a digital ad buy beginning Tuesday supporting Tillis, part of a larger effort the organization will run in other Senate battlegrounds, including Montana, Georgia and Texas.
The dueling organizations say they have no plans to let up. And as North Carolina elections officials prepare to mail ballots on Sept. 4 to voters who requested one, VoteVets, AFP and other groups say they plan to keep up the push to sway voters all the way until the end.
“We’re going to continue to spend,” said VoteVets’ Jon Soltz. “This is the launch of the final stretch, and we continue to make Cal one of our top priorities.”
This week’s VoteVets buy, which will begin airing Tuesday and will run for two weeks across the state, hits Tillis for votes the group says were counter to the interests of veterans or service members — including a 2018 vote the group says Tillis cast against a military pay raise. The spot also praises Cunningham for his military service.
“He’s got courage and will put us first,” says narrator Amy Rutkowske, an Army veteran from Fayetteville, N.C.
The Tillis campaign said the ad misrepresented the incumbent’s record.
“Senator Tillis has championed veterans’ health care through the Mission Act and has secured the two largest across-the-board pay raises over the last nine years for our servicemembers,” said Tillis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo in an email to CQ Roll Call. “This is yet another pathetic attack from Chuck Schumer to try to distract from his rubber-stamp, Cal Cunningham’s, extreme liberal record.”
New York’s Schumer is the Senate Minority Leader. Outside group Senate Majority PAC, which is linked with Senate Democratic leaders, sent more than $7.8 million to VoteVets earlier this year.
The Cunningham campaign did not respond to a request for comment but did release an unrelated statement Monday attacking Tillis for promoting mask-wearing and then not wearing a mask Thursday while attending President Donald Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for another term. Tillis on Friday issued a statement saying he "fell short of my own standard" on mask-wearing.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, part of the Koch political network, said he’d been crisscrossing North Carolina just last week, knocking on doors in support of Tillis’ campaign.
“It’s the top priority for us,” Phillips said of the North Carolina Senate race. “If you could only watch one race in the country to predict nationally what will happen in the Senate, it’s North Carolina.”
AFP is also launching ads on Tuesday in Montana supporting incumbent GOP Sen. Steve Daines, who’s in a Toss-up race against Steve Bullock, the state’s Democratic governor; and in Georgia on behalf of incumbent Sen. David Perdue, whose challenger is Democrat Jon Ossoff.
AFP’s new ad campaign will also support incumbent GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who faces a challenge from MJ Hegar, whom VoteVets has backed with TV and digital ads.
VoteVets and its affiliated VoteVets Action Fund have also dropped money in other hotly contested Senate and House races, and it has disclosed spending big against Trump. The group spent nearly $1.2 million against incumbent GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and another nearly $1.2 million against GOP Sen. Martha McSally, an Air Force veteran. It also supports Navy veteran and former astronaut Mark Kelly in that race.
Tillis — who along with Collins, Daines, McSally and Perdue is one of the Senate’s most vulnerable members — has struggled, according to recent polls including one in late August that had Cunningham up by 10 points.
Phillips of AFP says the group is investing in a big on-the-ground operation in support of Tillis, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. In addition to AFP’s 15 full-time staffers in the state, Phillips said the group already has added 40 part-timers with plans to hire more.
“It’s the largest ground effort we’ve ever had,” he said. “You have a larger number of swing voters in North Carolina than most people think.”
Those voters, he said, ordinarily wouldn’t be so tuned into politics, but the pandemic, economic woes and racial strife have touched them directly.
“More than any one issue for these voters is a broader question that will determine a race like in North Carolina and across the country: Which candidate gives me the best chance to get my normal life back?” he said.
His pitch to those voters, he added, boils down to: “Here’s how Thom Tillis gets your normal life back.”