Senate 2020: In Storm-Torn North Carolina, an Embattled Republican Tries a Climate-Friendly Image

Sen. Thom Tillis no longer denies climate science, but he is trailing a Democrat who says the state needs stronger environmental leadership.

Cal Cunningham (left) is running against Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) to represent North Carolina in the Senate. Credit: Cal for NC; Erin Schaff/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Democrat Cal Cunningham (left) is running against Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) to represent North Carolina in the Senate. Credit: Cal for NC; Erin Schaff/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

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This story is part of a series focusing on the climate records of candidates in key Senate races in November’s elections. It was updated on Oct. 7 to reflect changes in the race.

At a Glance:

  • Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis, a long-time fossil fuel promoter who once denied climate science, now says he favors “market-based solutions.”

  • The GOP so feared running against Democrat Cal Cunningham, an Army vet, that it spent $3 million on a failed stealth effort to knock him out of the primary.

  • Expect the candidates to spar over protection of North Carolina’s coast from intense storms and offshore drilling.


Tillis v. Cunningham

When Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina first ran for U.S. Senate in 2014, he gave the same one-word answer as his three competitors for the GOP nomination when asked if climate change was a fact: “No.” 

But that was six years, five hurricanes, and one pandemic ago.

Tillis, as he runs for a second term, is now distancing himself  from his past climate denial and, to some extent, from President Donald Trump, in what is turning out to be a difficult struggle to hold onto his seat against Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. 

Cunningham, a former state senator, environmental entrepreneur and U.S. Army reserve lieutenant colonel who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has mostly led in the polls since June.

But the dynamics of the race have been upended by sickness and scandal.  Tillis, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who was on hand at a Rose Garden ceremony to celebrate Trump’s new Supreme Court pick, was one of more than a dozen people to test positive for the coronavirus, after contact with White House officials in September.

Within hours of that revelation on Oct. 3, Cunningham’s campaign confirmed that he had sent messages of a sexual nature to a California campaign strategist who is not his wife. “I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry,” Cunningham, the married father of two, said in a prepared statement. He pulled out of a planned voter town hall, and it was uncertain whether his campaign could overcome the damage to his carefully honed image.

It was not immediately clear how disruptive the Covid diagnosis would be for Tillis, who initially closed his campaign office but said he was feeling better after three days and planned to participate in confirmation hearings on Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. He lost no time in pouncing on his opponent’s woes, saying Cunningham owes voters a “full explanation” of the text messages.

Before the double-barreled October surprise hit one of the most critical races for determining control of the Senate, climate change had become a key issue in the coastal state campaign.

In one political ad, featuring images of the back-to-back historic storms that have pummeled North Carolina, Cunningham condemns Tillis’ record of inaction on climate change: “It’s time for somebody who will stand up and fight.”   

Tillis, for his part, is trying to remake himself as a moderate proponent of market-based climate solutions. But he faces an opponent who also portrays himself as a moderate, and Tillis carries the burden of his own record as a fossil fuel advocate closely aligned with Trump.

Tillis: A Conversion, But a Pro-Fossil Fuel Record

Tillis now acknowledges anthropogenic climate change, but does not express urgency. “We have to come up with several strategies to recognize reality: climate changes,” he said in a 2018 interview. “Sometimes it changes just because it has over the millenia. Sometimes it changes because of human factors.”

He has not backed any particular climate action strategy, and his campaign did not respond to InsideClimate News’ request for details.

Last year, Tillis voted to back Trump’s repeal of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. The League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard shows just 9 percent of the votes he has cast have been pro-environmental, and FiveThirtyEight shows him voting with Trump’s position 93.4 percent of the time. 

Tillis also was one of 20 GOP Senators who urged Trump in 2017 to exit the Paris climate accord; he has said the accord “didn’t have some of the fastest growing polluters, the ones who will surpass the United States.” However, the Paris accord did include commitments by all emitters that signed it, including China and India, which rank No. 1 and No. 3 in emissions. 

In Tillis’ first Senate floor speech in 2015, he pushed legislation to open the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling, which he said would “create jobs and provide great opportunities for this generation and future generations.”

The Money Race: North Carolina

At the time, Tillis dismissed the risk to the state’s coastline because drilling would be “greater than 30 miles off the coast, far beyond the sight horizon of our beautiful beaches.” (BP’s Deepwater Horizon blow-out in 2010, which contaminated 1,313 miles of Gulf shoreline with oil, occurred 41 miles offshore). But recent polls show that a majority of North Carolina residents oppose offshore drilling. And with Trump now moving forward with a plan for oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic coast—over the objection of North Carolina’s Democratic officials—Tillis has voiced concern.

“I would like to hear more details about specific actions your agencies are taking to safeguard long-standing industries in our coastal communities,” Tillis wrote to the administration last year.  That hasn’t slowed down the administration’s plans. Trump announced in early September he would reverse his plan for offshore drilling off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida—three states with Republican governors—while leaving in place his plan for North Carolina. 

Tillis has a significant clean energy accomplishment on his resume: When he was in North Carolina’s legislature, he voted with the majority in 2007 for a measure, backed by the utility industry, making North Carolina the first southeastern state with a renewable energy portfolio standard. As a result, North Carolina is now the No. 2 state behind California in solar energy capacity, with Apple, Facebook and Google all powering their data centers in the state with clean energy.

Cunningham: Investment, Without the ‘Green New Deal’ Label

Tillis’ challenger, Cunningham, who argues that an economy-wide clean energy transition will require significant federal investment, has a personal profile in business and the military that has appeal in North Carolina. One measure of Cunningham’s strength as a candidate: The GOP was so fearful of facing him this fall that it sank $3 million into a failed stealth effort to knock him out of the primary. 

The Senate Leadership Fund, a Super-PAC run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), set up a shell political action committee supporting Cunningham’s left-wing opponent, Erica Smith, with advertisements designed to amplify fault lines in the Democratic party—including on climate change.

“Who will vote for the Green New Deal? Erica Smith. Not Cal Cunningham,” said the ads

Cunningham ended up beating Smith by more than 20 percentage points, but the Tillis campaign has continued to use the tricky politics of the Green New Deal as a weapon.

With public opinion deeply polarized on the Green New Deal, any position that a Democrat takes could alienate a large swath of voters in a swing state like North Carolina.

Cunningham has said he opposes the Green New Deal, but he does support significant federal investment aimed at creating jobs and slashing carbon emissions in half by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. Those are, in essence, the goals of both the Green New Deal and the Paris climate accord (which Cunningham thinks the United States should rejoin).

In line with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan, Cunningham argues that the economic upheaval of Covid-19 has made the task more urgent. “We’re going to need to do some meaningful investment,” he said recently. “The investments that we make need to embrace environmental principles.”

The Takeaway:

Voters put the pandemic-driven economic recession far ahead of climate change as their top concern in this fall’s election, but the North Carolina Senate race shows how the two are related. The key question in both is what the government’s role should be in addressing a public crisis. Tillis now acknowledges a climate problem, but his statements and actions suggest he does not see it as an urgent threat, and he favors limited government action. Cunningham, on the other hand, though he shuns the “Green New Deal” label, sees a need for an expansive government role in a transition to a clean energy economy.