With polls in the Senate race between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham pointing to a competitive race, 2020 looks set to be yet another entry in the legendary list of North Carolina Senate contests. Since 1980, North Carolina has shown both a willingness to vote out Senators and a consistent trend of high-profile, high-spending races.
The Tar Heel State’s status as a swing state at the Presidential level may be new. But at the Senate level, North Carolina has been one for years. And it doesn’t seem ready to relinquish that status any time soon.
1972 – Galifianakis vs. Helms
After unseating incumbent Democrat B. Everett Jordan, a supporter of segregation, in the Democratic primary, liberal Nick Galifianakis hoped to hold the seat for his party. But he faced a strong challenge in Republican Jesse Helms. Helms, a conservative known for his controversial views on civil rights, had begun his career as a Democrat but had switched parties in 1970.
Helms began as an underdog; Republicans hadn’t won a Senate race in North Carolina in the 20th century to that point. However, he was successfully able to tie Galifianakis to unpopular presidential nominee George McGovern. Helms was ultimately able to eke out an eight-point win amidst a 40-point Nixon landslide. In doing so, Helms flipped many traditionally Democratic counties in eastern North Carolina. This race marked the first of five straight victories for Helms.
1980 – Morgan vs. East
One of the most closely-decided Senate races of the cycle, Republican John East was able to eke out an 11,000 vote win over incumbent Democrat Robert Morgan. A protege of Helms, East was helped to victory by Reagan’s landslide win and Helm’s machine and cash. Little differentiated Helms and East in their political views. In contrast, Morgan began his career as a segregationist but gradually shifted away from that stance. East was effectively able to tie Morgan to more liberal national Democrats.
East would ultimately not even finish his term as Senator. After declining to run for re-election and endorsing Jim Broyhill, a moderate Republican from Lenoir, East prepared to resume his career as a professor. However, he was found dead at his home on June 29, 1986; the cause of death was suicide. East’s victory and death marked the beginning of North Carolina’s “cursed” Senate seat. Up until 2010, no Senator holding this seat would serve a second term.
1984 – Helms vs. Hunt
This is the race that started it all. The 1984 North Carolina Senate race is perhaps the first of its kind: a bare-knuckle, expensive, and bitterly contested fight. This matchup pitted two titans of North Carolina politics who would go on to become its longest-serving Senator and longest-serving Governor, respectively. On the Republican side, Helms had gained a reputation as one of the most conservative senators in the country. On the Democratic side, absurdly popular and mildly liberal Governor Jim Hunt wanted to reclaim a Senate seat for his party.
For much of the race, Hunt held a commanding lead. By September, however, the race had settled into a dead heat. Hunt accused Helms of backing death squads in El Salvador; Helms accused Hunt of being liberal and pro-union and questioned his lack of military service. By the end of the race, around $26 million had been spent; that’s over $60 million in 2014 dollars, making it by far the most expensive inflation-adjusted race in state history at that point.
In the end, Helms rode Reagan’s coattails to an 86,000 vote win – a margin of around four percentage points. Don’t feel too bad for Hunt, though. He went on to serve two more terms as Governor, securing his status as arguably the most prominent Governor in state history.
1986 – Broyhill vs. Sanford
Both names in this race were well-known in state politics. Jim Broyhill, a House member from Lenoir, was well-known as a business magnate. His father had worked for years to build up the party, and now he had served for decades in Congress. Although Broyhill had already won the nomination, he was appointed to the Senate following East’s death. Sanford, on the other hand, was known as a more progressive Democrat. He had previously served as Governor from 1961-65 and had since become president of Duke University.
In an irony of ironies, Sanford was able to turn manufacturing against Broyhill. Cheap imports from other countries had hurt the North Carolina textile industry, giving Sanford a crucial leg to attack Broyhill on. For his part, Broyhill attempted to tie himself to Reagan. In the end, however, Sanford won the race by three percentage points.
1990/96 – Helms vs. Gantt
After barely surviving a vicious challenge from Hunt, Helms faced another major challenge in 1990. This time, his opponent was Harvey Gantt, who had served as mayor of Charlotte from 1981 to 1987. Gantt was the first African-American to serve as Charlotte’s mayor and offered a credible challenge to Helms.
On policy, the two couldn’t be further apart. Helms had established himself as an arch-conservative, while Gantt was a solid liberal. Unfortunately, Helms’s racial politics played into this race. In the final weeks of the campaign, Helms aired several ads attacking Gantt on affirmative action, gay rights, and the death penalty. Most notable was the infamous “White Hands” ad. While the exact impact was unclear, the race ended in a narrow five-point win for Helms. The two faced off again in 1996, but Helms would win his final term by a wider margin of nearly seven points. The two races combined saw over $48 million spent.
1992 – Sanford vs. Faircloth
At 75, Terry Sanford held the title of the oldest freshman in the Senate. While age and experience can be an asset, in 1992’s Senate race it proved to be fatal. His entry into the 1986 Senate race had been a surprise to many. Among those surprised was Launch Faircloth, a friend and ally, who had wanted the seat for himself. Even more, Sanford had allegedly demeaned Faircloth’s chances of winning the race. Angered by this slight, Faircloth plotted his revenge.
By 1992, the former Democrat had switched parties. After defeating popular Charlotte Mayor Sue Myrick in the Republican primary, he ran a brutal campaign against Sanford. On television, he targeted Sanford as a big-spending liberal and presented him as an ally of national liberals. Additionally, Sanford’s age and health came into play. Faircloth would ultimately unseat the incumbent by around four percentage points, ending Sanford’s long political career.
1998 – Faircloth vs. Edwards
Faircloth was initially favored to win a second term; two credible Democrats declined to challenge him. However, Democrats struck gold with a young, photogenic lawyer, John Edwards. On paper, he seemed like the perfect candidate. Edwards had risen to national prominence after successfully representing a girl who had been disemboweled by a defective pool drain. The 45-year old Edwards, a first-time candidate for office, had both the wealth and energy to give Faircloth a fight.
Faircloth decided to launch a fully negative campaign against Edwards. In hindsight, his campaign admitted this was a mistake. Edwards was able to build a strong coalition, winning over rural counties in eastern and western North Carolina while also doing well in the cities. This was enough to pull off a four-point win and launch himself into national prominence. While his time in the Senate proved to be brief – only a single term – Edwards was able to leverage this single win into a vice-presidential nomination and, ultimately, a failed presidential campaign.
2002 – Bowles vs. Dole
It might not have seemed like it from the final margin, but the 2002 Senate race in North Carolina was the most expensive in the country. With Helms vacating the seat, Democrats saw an opportunity to flip it. Republicans chose Elizabeth Dole, the wife of Senator Bob Dole. While she faced accusations of carpetbagging, she had a strong brand and a strong record as a cabinet official. Democratic nominee Erskine Bowles, for his part, was well-known for his time as President Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff.
Attempts by Bowles to target Dole’s residency backfired; voters evidently valued having an established national figure as Senator. Lingering distrust of the Clinton administration also played a big role in the campaign; Clinton’s anti-tobacco advocacy played poorly in a state with a strong tobacco industry. While analysts expected a close race, Dole instead won by a decisive eight-point margin, becoming North Carolina’s first female Senator.
2004 – Bowles vs. Burr
With Edwards vacating his seat to become the Vice Presidential nominee under John Kerry, the 2004 Senate race was an open contest. Bowles returned as the Democratic nominee, while Republicans chose Richard Burr, the representative from the Piedmont-based fifth congressional district.
Bowles again positioned himself as a centrist, while Burr asserted his strong conservative credentials. While Bowles held a lead for most of the campaign, Burr was able to close the gap in the final months with strong advertising statewide. Ultimately, Bowles ran well ahead of Kerry statewide, but Burr still prevailed by over four percentage points. To date, this is the last race where North Carolina’s “cursed seat” has changed hands.
2008 – Dole vs. Hagan
Ahead of the 2008 Senate race, North Carolina Democrats were in a crisis. Their preferred nominee, popular Governor Mike Easley, had declined to run for Senate, and Congressman Brad Miller had bowed out as well. While Dole was perceived as somewhat vulnerable due to her tenuous residency, Democrats were down to few options. Ultimately, they went with Kay Hagan, a little-known state senator from Greensboro.
While the race initially seemed uncompetitive, Hagan was able to exploit North Carolina’s increasingly prominent status as a swing state. As their lead dwindled, the Dole campaign became increasingly flustered and desperate. They ultimately released one of the most poorly-received political ads in recent history. The ad, titled “Godless”, criticized Hagan, a former Sunday School teacher, for taking money from Godless Americans PAC. Most egregiously, a soundbite placed over the ad said “There is no God” – suggesting Hagan herself said it. The ad was widely criticized from both sides of the aisle. The ensuing outcry over it no doubt played a part in Hagan’s landslide win of over eight points.
2010 – Burr vs. Marshall
Despite an ensuing red wave year, Burr was considered by some to be vulnerable. In one of the most embarrassing Senate recruiting failures in recent memory, the DSCC-backed candidate, Cal Cunningham, was utterly walloped in the Senate primary by Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.
Marshall had risen to prominence by her victory over Richard Petty in 1996 and was fairly popular, but her progressive stances played poorly in a national race. Burr would ultimately win by a landslide margin of 12 percentage points. His win even included strongly Democratic counties like Wake and Guilford – an impressive performance to be sure.
2014 – Hagan vs. Tillis
With fairly strong approval ratings and a tentatively weak Republican field, Hagan was initially seen as a strong favorite for re-election. In the Republican field, House Speaker Thom Tillis emerged as the victor with a mere 46% of the vote. The presence of a strongly-polling third-party candidate, Libertarian pizza delivery man Sean Haugh, further complicated Republican odds.
While the race – the most expensive in the country – remained close in polling, Tillis rarely if ever led. Hagan led what by most measures was an excellent campaign. However, Tillis was gifted three major wins throughout the race. The first was Obamcare, which remained unpopular in the state. The second was that Hagan’s husband’s company had received money from the stimulus package. Finally, there was the revelation that Hagan had skipped an Armed Services Committee hearing on ISIS to attend a fundraiser in New York.
Tillis relentlessly hammered into the fundraiser scandal in the closing weeks. Despite trailing in his own internals for virtually the entire race, he managed to defeat Hagan by 1.5% amidst a massive red wave.
2016 – Burr vs. Ross
Despite his strong margin in 2016, re-election was not a given for Burr. Amidst speculation of retirement, Burr opted to run for a third term but underperformed in the primary, winning only 61% of the vote. On the Democratic side, little-known state representative Deborah Ross emerged as the leader in a divided field.
Burr decided to replicate his low-profile as a Senator with his campaign, and his lackadaisical approach resulted in an increasingly close race. By September, Republicans were nearly in panic over his refusal to take the race seriously. Burr later began to do so, targeting Ross’s record of work for the ACLU. Polls showed an evenly-divided race in the last month, and most national outlets rated the race a tossup. Spending was high, too, with over $80 million spent over the course of the campaign. Ultimately, however, Burr prevailed by a decisive – and larger-than-expected – margin of 5.5%, far more than Donald Trump won by.
If these past races are any indication, North Carolina is shaping up for another barnburner of a Senate race. Tillis hopes to pull off a repeat of his come-from-behind win in 2014, while Democrats hope to win a Senate seat for the first time since 2008. However, eyes are already shifting to 2022, when Burr is set to retire. This will almost be another competitive race in a nearly unbroken string of competitive Senate contests.