Control of the U.S. Senate may hinge on North Carolina. The race between Senator Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham is shaping up to be a barnburner. And right now, Cunningham is the one on fire. He’s leading Tillis by as much as nine points according to four polls released last week. Tillis, for his part, is trying once again to change his spots. 

Five Thirty Eight lists four polls that show Tillis trailing. Fox News has him down by two, NYT has him down by three, PPP has him down by four and a poll by a group called Redfield & Wilton Strategies has him down by nine. The Real Clear Politics average gives Cunningham a two point lead. Clearly, the incumbent Senator is struggling in this environment. 

Tillis has garnered the enmity of those on both the right and the left. He’s shown few political convictions during his time in office and seems to be chasing popular opinion. When it was fashionable to be a moderate reaching across the aisle, Tillis talked about working with Democrats to get things done. When it became more in vogue to bow to the president, Tillis raced to be biggest suck up. Now that Trump’s numbers are in the tank, he’s trying to put daylight between himself and the president. Nobody likes a candidate who stands for nothing. 

Tillis also had a rough June. He got caught plagiarizing a campaign memo from a losing race in Virginia. His spokesperson admitted that he had lifted large parts from a memo he had written for Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie. Gillespie lost badly to Ralph Northam. In other words, Tillis is following a failed strategy in his approach to winning North Carolina. 

A SuperPAC is blasting Tillis for thwarting Medicaid expansion in the state. When he was Speaker of the North Carolina House, he bragged about preventing people from getting healthcare under the program. Now that we’re in the midst of global pandemic that is also kicking people off of the their employer-based insurance, the decision looks like it could leave thousands of North Carolinians without health coverage. 

Finally, Tillis shot an ad in a restaurant being sued for racial discrimination. In another time, the incident might just be blip but in the current environment, using the location was a major screw up. Tillis campaign folks say they didn’t even know about the lawsuit. That says as much about the state of his campaign as the copied memo from a losing campaign. They will need to get a lot sharper to win in a race this competitive. 

Tillis may overhaul his campaign and find a new personae that fits him well in the fall, but right now, he and his campaign are struggling. As a candidate, he’s ill-defined because he’s always changing who he is. His campaign is making rookie mistakes in a top-tier race. The political headwinds are against him because his party is on the wrong side of the issues most important to the voters at this time. His best hope for victory is a shift in forces beyond his control. He needs the political environment to become more favorable to conservatives. In the meantime, he needs to figure out who he will be in the fall and why his team is failing him.  


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