Cal Cunningham Wins Democratic Primary For U.S. Senate In North Carolina

Cunningham defeated progressive state Sen. Erica Smith and now aims to flip Republican Sen. Thom Tillis' seat in November.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham, left, acknowledges supporters as his wife Elizabeth, right, with their daugh
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham, left, acknowledges supporters as his wife Elizabeth, right, with their daughter, Caroline, looks on.

Cal Cunningham won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in North Carolina on Tuesday, according to projections by The Associated Press, sending him onward in the race for a Republican-held seat that Democrats hope to flip in November.

Cunningham, a military veteran and former state senator, beat out four other Democratic contenders, including progressive state Sen. Erica Smith. He’ll face Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis, a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, in the general election. 

The stakes are high in November’s election in a swing state that Trump won in 2016 but that Democrats hope to capture in 2020 in their efforts to gain back a Senate majority. 

Cunningham, who is white, was the front-runner in the primary, endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and leading in polls in late February. He’d raised $4.7 million by last month, compared with runner-up Smith, who is Black, who’d garnered about $240,000.

Cunningham, who served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a one-term state senator from 2001 to 2003 and ran for U.S. Senate in 2010 and lost. He campaigned on fighting climate change, creating a public health option and allowing states to legalize marijuana. He was considered more moderate than Smith and cast his absentee ballot in the presidential race for centrist and fellow vet Pete Buttigieg, who dropped out of the presidential race on Sunday.

Smith — who’s been a state senator since 2015 and was a former public school teacher and engineer — ran further left, touting her support for a Green New Deal, “Medicare for All” and legalizing marijuana at the federal level. 

Both candidates pledged not to accept any corporate PAC money. After a “Faith and Power” PAC with reported GOP ties ran an ad campaign promoting Smith, she disavowed its support.

Cunningham also defeated fellow candidates Trevor Fuller, Atul Goel and Steve Swenson in the primary. 

The November race could be a close one, with Cook Political Report rating it as “leaning Republican.” Tillis, who is anti-abortion and pushing a bill to penalize sanctuary cities, won his seat in 2014 by only a slim margin of 48.8% to 47.3% against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who died last October.