RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina primary voters on Tuesday chose a Democratic former state legislator and Iraq War veteran to challenge Republican Sen. Thom Tillis this fall and the GOP lieutenant governor to try to unseat Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Cal Cunningham, who ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat 10 years ago, defeated party rival Erica Smith and three others to earn the Democratic nomination. As in 2010, he received the backing of Washington Democrats. His military career, centrist views and fundraising advantage propelled the waste-management company attorney to victory over Smith, who ran on a more liberal platform.
Cunningham now takes on Tillis, who won easily over three lesser-known opponents in his Republican primary and now seeks a second term.
GOP primary participants also chose Lt. Gov. Dan Forest over state Rep. Holly Grange for the gubernatorial nomination to take on Cooper. Cooper had his own primary, winning easily over Ernest Reeves, who raised little campaign money.
Primary voters decided dozens of nominations for federal, state government and legislative seats in addition to choosing nominees in the presidential contest, which brought massive candidate operations and advertising to the state in recent weeks. At the top of the tickets, Joe Biden won the state’s Democratic presidential primary, and President Donald Trump won on the Republican side.
Voters also winnowed the fields for lieutenant governor, schools superintendent and other Council of State positions. Democratic primary voters in two congressional districts now favoring the party after a recent redistricting were picking nominees who stood a strong chance to reach Capitol Hill next year.
Cunningham was endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and benefited from more than $9 million in outside spending from two super PACs.
Unaffiliated voter Bob De Andrade, 64, of Durham, said he voted Tuesday for Cunningham because he believes he would stand up to Donald Trump or whoever is president.
“I thought he was offering the change I’d like to see,” said De Andrade, a tour bus driver. “He’s not accepting the status quo of allowing the president to run roughshod over the institutions.”
Some of the super PAC ads backing Cunningham sought to counter pro-Smith commercials paid for by an unusual source: a group linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The GOP effort was designed to weaken Cunningham among progressive voters by pointing out he didn’t support the Green New Deal or Medicaid for All. The campaign of Smith, who backs those policies, still blasted the interference, adding that black women “are not chess pawns for D.C. committees.” Smith would have become the first African American female senator from the South if elected in November.
Meanwhile, Tillis was ultimately spared from an expensive race against well-funded challengers who either didn’t run or pulled out. Questions about Tillis’ loyalty to President Donald Trump by hardline Republicans have subsided in recent months, particularly during Trump’s impeachment.
Tillis “had made some stumbles” previously when it came to his allegiance to Trump, retired Highway Patrol leader Sidney Cummings, 77, said after voting in Cary, but “he’s better than a Democrat.”
Cooper, who narrowly beat then-GOP Gov. Roy McCrory in 2016, will enter the general election campaign with a massive money advantage over Forest, a favorite of social conservatives. Cooper’s campaign coffers had over $9 million as of mid-February, compared to about $750,000 for Forest.
Cooper’s term has been marked by political combat with Republican legislative leaders. Republicans have controlled the General Assembly since 2011 and pushed a conservative agenda. But gains by Democrats in the legislature in 2018 meant that Cooper’s vetoes could be upheld.
Forest, who was elected lieutenant governor in 2012 and reelected four years later, has a well-organized statewide campaign organization. He’s spoken against Cooper’s vetoes on abortion and immigration legislation.
Forest may be best known as a champion for North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which required transgender students to use the restroom matching their sex on their birth certificate. The law has been partially repealed. Grange questioned Forest’s electability in November, saying he was divisive.
For Congress, voters picked nominees in the Piedmont-area 2nd and 6th Districts and far-western 11th District, where each Republican chose not to seek reelection. Reps. George Holding of Raleigh and Mark Walker of Greensboro cited the court-ordered redrawing of the state’s congressional map in November for their decisions.
In the 2nd District, unsuccessful 2016 U.S. Senate nominee Deborah Ross of Raleigh won the Democratic primary over three rivals, while Kathy Manning of Greensboro won the 6th District Democratic primary. Both will be strong favorites in the fall, since the remapping made both districts more Democratic.
In the still Republican-leaning 11th District, where GOP Rep. Mark Meadows decided not to run for reelection, Lynda Bennett was the top vote-getter in the 12-candidate GOP field but failed to get more than 30% of the vote, the necessary threshold to win the nomination outright. Second-place finisher Madison Cawthorn can seek a May runoff. The winner would face Democratic primary winner Moe Davis.
One or both major parties held primaries for the other nine positions on the Council of State, composed of statewide executive department leaders.
Voter turnout exceeded 2.1 million, according to State Board of Election data as of Tuesday night. Election officials said there were few voting problems on Tuesday. Only two polling places stayed open past the 7:30 p.m. closing time due to earlier voting delays.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Drew in Durham, North Carolina, contributed to this report.