RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A former North Carolina state senator is switching races, announcing Monday that he’s joined the Democratic effort to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, whose seat would be a major pickup for Democrats trying to win back a Senate majority.
Cal Cunningham, a familiar name in state Democratic circles, said he’s no longer running for lieutenant governor and has switched instead to the 2020 U.S. Senate race.
Cunningham has run for the U.S. Senate before, finishing second in the Democratic primary nearly ten years ago. A one-term state Senate stint is his only elected position to date, but the 45-year-old attorney and Iraq War veteran has remained well connected in state Democratic politics.
At least two other Democrats already are running in the March 2020 primary, but national Democrats have been looking hard for other candidates for the seat in the closely divided state. Other current and former elected officials have either ruled out running or haven’t decided yet. Cunningham filed Senate campaign paperwork late Sunday and released on Monday an introductory campaign video.
In an interview with The Associated Press before his formal announcement, Cunningham said he changed races because Washington politicians have failed to solve the problems voters have talked to him about as he’s run for lieutenant governor, including health care, college affordability and gun violence. He also said people on the campaign trail asked him repeatedly if he was considering a Senate bid. The lieutenant governor’s field remains crowded, with at least four other Democrats and four Republicans.
“There’s really a fundamental political corruption problem that put Washington completely out of touch with the people,” Cunningham said, citing corporate influence and big-money donors. “That fundamental problem is a Washington that is broken.” Cunningham said Tillis is part of that failure but that he would work in tandem with North Carolina to find solutions if elected.
Any successful challenge of Tillis, however, is likely to require raising tens of millions of dollars, whether through a candidate’s campaign or through super PACs. The 2014 U.S. Senate race between Tillis and Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan was the most expensive Senate campaign ever at that time, with more than $120 million in candidate and outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Tillis won that race by less than 2 percentage points. Two years later, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in North Carolina by nearly 4 percentage points in 2016.
The other Democrats in the race are State Sen. Erica Smith of Northampton County and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller . Neither has run statewide in the past. Former state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Richard Moore said last week that he’s spoken with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer about a candidacy, but hasn’t decided.
Cunningham quickly sought Monday to build support by releasing endorsements from Hagan, notable African American officials and a key state women’s rights advocate.
Cunningham was elected to the state Senate in 2000 at age 27. Considered a conservative Democrat at the time, the Lexington native didn’t seek re-election the next year in part due to redistricting. After 9/11 he joined the Army Reserve and later served in Iraq as an Army prosecutor — a plus in military-friendly North Carolina.
He lost to Secretary of State Elaine Marshall in a runoff of the 2010 U.S. Senate primary, despite help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Since then, the reserve major served a tour in Afghanistan and now works as an executive at an environmental services and waste reduction company. He is also vice chairman of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s crime commission.
“I grew up to believe in public service,” he told the AP. “It is in the core of who I am.”
Republicans quickly tried to paint Cunningham as a liberal political retread who couldn’t stick to running for lieutenant governor. Cunningham “enters this race by abandoning his previous commitment and demonstrating his total inability to say ‘no’ to Chuck Schumer,” Tillis campaign manager Luke Blanchat said in a release.
Tillis also has a GOP primary challenger, retired Raleigh financier Garland Tucker , who says Tillis hasn’t been conservative enough when it comes to government financial austerity and immigration.
Tillis has been performing a political balancing act to receive favor from both likely Republican primary voters and unaffiliated voters who often determine North Carolina general election results. Criticism was heaped upon Tillis from both sides when he voted to support Trump’s emergency declaration for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, after initially opposing the declaration and writing an op-ed that explained why.