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Tuesday, 22 October 2019 14:11

COLUMN: A North Carolina senator's conundrum

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A National Journal article this weekend listed Sen. Thom Tillis as the incumbent U.S. senator with the lowest approval rating. The piece says that Democrats’ path to taking back the Senate is becoming increasingly clear and that North Carolina will be front and center again. In 2014, Tillis unseated incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan in the most expensive U.S. Senate race in North Carolina history as Republicans took control of the Senate after near misses in 2010 and 2012. 

Tillis raised a relatively paltry $1.2 million last quarter. While that’s still a lot of money, it’s not for an incumbent senator in a highly competitive race. To put it into perspective, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina  raised $3.3 million in a much smaller and less competitive state. 

Tillis not only faces a general election; he faces a self-funding primary opponent who is already running ads and forcing Tillis to spend his money. If the primary stays in March, a big “if” given the redistricting court cases in the state right now, he could find himself starting virtually from scratch in the spring if he survives the primary. If the primary gets pushed back, he’ll be broke even closer to the general election. If he doesn’t survive the primary, North Carolina could find itself with an open seat in a year that seems likely to favor Democrats. 

However, there’s more at work here than just politics. As I’ve written before, North Carolina doesn’t generally like its U.S. senators. With the exception of Jesse Helms and Richard Burr, nobody’s been re-elected since the late 1960s. That’s almost 50 years of one-term senators. 

It’s tough being a senator from a state like North Carolina. We’re a relatively evenly divided lot as far a political ideology goes, so we tend to elect moderates. However, moderates are, almost by definition, cautious. Rarely do our senators stand out and since they don’t get a second term, they generally have few accomplishments. They enter re-election campaigns relatively ill-defined with almost half the state opposed to them because of the inherent political division of the state. It’s easier to define them as do-nothing senators than for them to define themselves with their modest first-term accomplishments.   

That said, Tillis has made the situation worse for himself. Instead of trying to define himself, he’s jumped from position to position and landed as a Lindsey Graham-type Trump suck up. Nobody knows where he stands because he’s not sure himself. His modest fundraising probably reflects the level of his support.

Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant.

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 October 2019 13:50
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