Usually we show both candidates. But Cal Cunningham's doggo is way cuter than Thom Tillis. (Facebook)

On Friday, North Carolina became the first state in the USA to begin sending out absentee ballots for the 2020 general election. That would partly explain why Donald Trump muddied things last week, telling his supporters to vote their absentee ballots and then show up to the polls and vote again on Election Day in November — he "clarified" later he only meant voters should go to the polls to check whether their mailed votes had been recorded (which is also not how it works). Dude is worried, and he has reason to be, with recent polling mostly showing him running behind Joe Biden.

Right below the presidential race on those ballots is another vital contest: the US Senate race between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis, and Democrat Cal Cunningham, who served in the North Carolina state Senate in the early aughts, then volunteered for the Army Reserve and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The race is one of the closest Senate contests this year, with all three major ranking outfits calling it a toss-up. Tillis is in quite a club of up-tossers: Joni Ernst in Iowa, Susan Collins in Maine, Steve Daines in Montana, David Perdue in Georgia, and Cory Gardner in Colorado. Also not-good news for Tillis: he's consistently polled behind Trump with North Carolina voters, which leaves him with a dilemma: he has to prove to Trump voters that he's still with them, but if he gives too many wet kisses to Trump, that could hurt him with centrist voters who are already abandoning the Great Man. Tillis isn't so much walking a tightrope as balancing on a 2X4 through a puddle of shit and deciding how much of the stuff he needs to get on his boots to stay credible with shitkickers — but not so much he'll be refused admission to the Centrist Cafe.


Tillis, the former speaker of the NC House, was elected to the US Senate in the 2014 wave of tea-partying, defeating Democratic incumbent Kay Hagen by just two percentage points. He's voted with Trump 93 percent of the time since 2017, and generally being a typical GOP conservative jackhole; back in 2007, in his first term in the state House, Tillis voted against a bipartisan measure to apologize for the 1898 KKK-led overthrow of Wilmington's multiracial government. Instead, he offered an amendment that would have also added praise of the few white Republicans who resisted the revolt, because #NotAllWhites. Once he was speaker, he led the passage of a bill to require women seeking abortions to submit to an unnecessary ultrasound, and requiring doctors to narrate:

The ultrasound screen had to be positioned in such a way that the woman could see it. The doctor had to describe the presence, location and dimensions of the fetus along with the number of fetuses present and if any organs were present. If a woman did not want to hear or see, she could close her ears and look away.

A federal appeals court threw that out before any subsequent laws required doctors to speak for the fetus and say in a high voice, "Mommy, please don't kill me, I love you mommy! NOOOOOO!" But once in the Senate, Tillis attached an amendment banning funding for Planned Parenthood to a bill that would have funded Veterans Administration fertility and adoption services for women veterans. Because having babies is good, but getting any other services is evil, lady vets.

Tillis also took the idea of opposing Big Gummint Regulation to extremes, saying that if he had his druthers, he'd leave basic hygeine up to the Free Market: if restaurants didn't require employees to wash up after using the shitter, that would be OK as long as they posted signs saying so. Presumably that pissed off some libertarian somewhere who thought the sign would be too much.

Tillis also managed to piss off entirely different constituencies in 2019 when he wrote a Washington Post op-ed opposing Donald Trump's emergency declaration that shifted money from military projects to fund Trump's vanity WALL. Tillis said illegal immigration was bad, but he didn't like the precedent the declaration set, because what if some crazy Democrat declared climate change an emergency and banned cows? But then when the Senate took up a bill to overturn the emergency order, Tillis voted with Trump.

Cunningham said of the Wall Emergency, fiasco,

He first alienates a lot of Trump supporters [...] Then he reverses course in order to appeal to the president to get back in good graces and avoid the tweets and in the process then alienates moderate voters.

That budget fiddling, we'd add, ended up taking away an assload of military spending at North Carolina military bases, YAY Thom Tillis!

More recently, Tillis has — good for him! — made a point of urging people to socially distance and wear masks to help bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control, a point he has repeated frequently on calls with constituents, even demonstrating the best way to put 'em on and reminding folks the mask needs to cover your nose. He even posted a photo of himself wearing a mask right before Trump's big RNC virus picnic at the White House.

So yes, that's a refreshing change from much of the Republican talk around public health.

Except, oops, once he took a seat and was surrounded by other screaming Trump fans, Tillis was caught on video crammed in with others at the rally, not wearing a mask at all.

He issued a statement the next day saying he'd tried to "tried to lead by example on this issue, but last night I fell short of my own standard," which is probably the best spin he could put on being at the superspreader 'stravaganza.

Tillis had previously put an unwashed foot in his mouth in July, when he seemed to blame Latinos in North Carolina for bringing a high rate of COVID-19 infection on themselves, explaining:

One of the concerns that we've had more recently is that the Hispanic population now constitutes about 44% of the positive cases. We do have some concerns that in the Hispanic population we have seen less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask.

His campaign issued a statement trying to make nice by adding that Hispanics faced challenges like living in "multi-generational households" where distancing might be difficult, and working in a lot of essential service fields, but it was still pretty fucking insulting.

Like many Dems this year, Cunningham already had healthcare at the top of his campaign priorities even before the pandemic, pointing out that when Tillis was in the state legislature, he'd opposed expanding Medicaid, and in the US Senate, Tillis was firmly in favor of repealing Obamacare. Tillis likes to brag that he introduced a bill that would preserve the ACA's protections for patients with pre-existing conditions, but as we noted when the bill was rolled out, it was garbage: it would require Insurance companies to sell health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions, but Tillis's bill would allow insurers to not cover treatment for those very conditions. So if you have heart disease, you can get a policy that will help you if you get hit by a bus, but if you have a heart attack on the way to ER, you're paying for THAT yourself. Such a deal!

Cunningham is hoping to benefit from demographic changes that have made North Carolina a much more purple state than in 2016, when Donald Trump narrowly won the state. For one thing, much of the state's growth has been in suburban areas, where Trump continues to poll poorly, despite his attempts to jump up and down and scare people with the idea that Cory Booker might come feed them vegan food and save them from a burning building.

Statewide, 30% of new voters have registered as Democrats, against 26% for Republicans. [Catawba College political scientist Michael] Bitzer said that among millennial and Gen-Z groups, Republicans have only just over 20%.

Black voters also make up 22 of the state's electorate, so get-out-the vote efforts will be key. Fortunately, Cunningham has a well-funded campaign; he set a state record for Senate fundraising in the second quarter, and he's benefiting from huge spending by outside groups, like the VoteVets superPAC, which is throwing $2.7 million into advertising on Cunningham's behalf. Tillis is also seeing big money coming from Mitch McConnell's PAC and from the usual suspects like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and such.

Polling has consistently shown Cunningham well ahead with suburban voters. A Fox News poll released Wednesday had Cunningham leading Tillis 48 percent to 42 percent among likely voters. And among those coveted suburban women, Cunningham was ahead of Tillis by 60 to 31 percent (54-37 in the 'burbs overall).

On the important Dog Issue, Cunningham has yellow labs, while Tillis has a very cute floof. Edge, Cunningham, because two dogs. Also, we sure hope Tillis's dog is not named after Mitch McConnell, because ew, poor pupper.

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Politically, Cunningham is a red state Democrat in 2020: For shoring up the ACA and a public option, opposed to Medicare for all, and solidly for choice and reproductive healthcare. He wants clean energy and trusts science on the climate, but isn't on board with the Green New Deal, and so on. As for the race at the top of the ticket, Cunningham tries to avoid attacking Trump or hugging Joe Biden too closely. As campaign strategist Morgan Jackson told Morning Consult, there's "No reason to coalesce the Trump base behind Tillis." And while Cunningham has avoided saying whether he'd support Chuck Schumer as Majority Leader if the Senate does flip, he also says it's time to get Mitch McConnell out of that job no matter what: "I can think of 47 better leaders than the Grim Reaper."

We like him! Help flip the Senate and send him some money if you can!

[Mother Jones / Politico / WaPo / Observer / News and Observer / Bloomberg / Morning Consult / Cal Cunningham for US Senate]

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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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