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Democrat Cunningham wins Senate primary to take on Tillis in North Carolina

Race for Meadows seat headed for runoff; Ross and Manning win Democratic nominations for redrawn Holding and Walker districts

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is one of the most vulnerable senators seeking reelection this year.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is one of the most vulnerable senators seeking reelection this year. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Army veteran and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham sailed through the North Carolina Democratic Senate primary Tuesday, setting up what is certain to be a closely watched race in November against vulnerable Republican incumbent Thom Tillis.

Cunningham, who led in fundraising and had the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was leading state Sen. Erica Smith, 58 percent to 34 percent, with 91 percent of precincts reporting.

Smith, a former school board member, received an unwanted boost from national Republicans in the last weeks of the race. The Senate Leadership Fund — a GOP super PAC associated with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — admitted in February it was behind a group that bought more than $3 million in ads touting Smith’s progressive credentials. The tactic was meant to force Cunningham to spend money on the primary that could have been spent in the fall against Tillis.

Tillis started off the campaign as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the Senate. His position improved in December when retired businessman Garland Tucker, who had been largely funding his own challenge, dropped out of the Republican primary. President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in North Carolina by less than 4 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates this year’s Senate race a Toss-up.

Tillis had a financial advantage over Cunningham heading into the primary, with more than $5.4 million cash in his bank account on Feb. 12 to less than $1.5 million for the Democrat. But outside groups will likely spend heavily on both sides in what is expected to be an expensive race.

A new map and a scramble

The primary was also the first election since a court-ordered redrawing of House district lines after Democrats won a challenge to the map. The new map is expected to give Democrats an edge in the redrawn 2nd and 6th districts, where Republican incumbents George Holding and Mark Walker, respectively, decided against seeking reelection.

Another retirement, by Rep. Mark Meadows in the 11th District, led to a crowded primary featuring 12 Republican candidates. That race is likely going to a runoff.

Real estate agent and GOP activist Lynda Bennett was leading the field with 23 percent when The Associated Press made the call with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Bennett, the only woman in the field, had Meadows’ endorsement.

But she fell short of the 30 percent threshold to avoid a runoff. The No. 2 finisher, 25-year-old real estate investor Madison Cawthorn, may request a runoff.

Wayne King, a Meadows staffer who resigned so he could run for the seat without violating ethics rules, finished a distant fifth with just 9 percent.

The winner of the GOP runoff will face retired U.S. Air Force Col. Moe Davis, was leading with 47 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting.

The district became slightly more competitive after the new lines were drawn to take in the liberal enclave of Asheville. But Inside Elections still rates the race Solid Republican.

New lines favor Democrats

In the Democratic primary in the 2nd District, Deborah Ross, a former state representative and state director for the American Civil Liberties Union who unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2016, was leading with 70 percent when the AP called the race with 59 percent of precincts reporting.

Wake County School Board Member Monika Johnson-Hostler, who had backing of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, was in second with 20 percent.

Alan Swain, a defense contractor & retired Army colonel, was unopposed in the 2nd District GOP primary.

In the 6th District, Kathy Manning was leading the Democratic field with 49 percent when the AP called the race with 74 percent of precincts reporting. Manning, a philanthropist and former immigration lawyer, was the 2018 Democratic nominee for the old 13th District, which she lost to GOP Rep. Ted Budd.

Rhonda Foxx, a former chief of staff to North Carolina Rep. Alma Adams, was in second with 20 percent.

Manning will face Republican Lee Haywood, a district GOP chairman, in November.

Both Ross and Manning will be in strong positions to win their general elections. Inside Elections rates both races Likely Democratic.

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