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Another Democratic challenger announces bid to unseat Sen. Thom Tillis

Cal Cunningham drops out of North Carolina lieutenant governor race for Senate run

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., arrives in the Capitol for the Senate policy luncheons on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., arrives in the Capitol for the Senate policy luncheons on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Thom Tillis will face a Democratic opponent with some name recognition next year in the battleground state of North Carolina.

Former state senator and Army Reserve counsel Calvin Cunningham III will challenge the first-term Republican, The Associated Press reported Monday. Tillis was already one of the more vulnerable Republicans facing re-election next year. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican.

Cunningham was running for lieutenant governor but filed papers late Sunday to jump into the Senate race.  

“That’s why I’m announcing for United States Senate. To take on the political corruption that’s standing in the way of progress and politicians like Thom Tillis, who are part of the problem,” Cunningham says in a web ad.

The Democratic Party has been recruiting in the state for a candidate with name recognition and a skill for attracting donations, the Charlotte Observer reported

Cunningham previously ran for the Senate in 2010. Despite support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Cunningham fell short to Secretary of State Elaine Marshall in a runoff by a double-digit margin.

Cunningham has raised nearly $315,000 in his race for lieutenant governor, according to the Observer. Tillis reported $2.9 million in the bank at the end of the first fiscal quarter.

Democrats state Sen. Erica Smith of Northampton County and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller have also announced their campaigns for the seat.

[Rep. Mark Walker won’t challenge him, but Sen. Thom Tillis still faces a primary]

The news comes on the heels of Rep. Mark Walker’s announcement Friday that he will pass on challenging Tillis in a primary, reportedly capitulating to fears among party leaders that a divisive primary could jeopardize the Republican-held seat in the general election. 

Tillis’ high-profile switch on Trump’s national emergency declaration earlier this spring contributed to speculation that he might be vulnerable to a primary.

Tillis still faces a intra-party challenge from retired businessman Garland Tucker III, who is expected to be able to pour his own money into the race.

A survey by the Club for Growth aimed at courting Warner into the race found that Tillis’ 30 percent unfavorable rating could make the incumbent “terrible in a primary.”

A former speaker of the North Carolina House, Tillis first won election to the Senate in 2014. He narrowly defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan with 49 percent of the vote. 

Barack Obama carried North Carolina in 2008, but the key state tipped for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016. 

Simone Pathé contributed to this report.

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Correction 10:44 a.m. | An earlier version of this story misidentified Rep. Mark Walker.

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