Thom Tillis is a man who can’t get out of his own way. In the debate, he looked more comfortable than Kay Hagan and stuck to his talking points. He should be feeling good. So why did he refer to her as “Kay”? 

I don’t believe he did it to demean her. I think he did it to appear more familiar, but that was the wrong the setting. It was a formal debate and she referred to him as Speaker Tillis. Maybe he didn’t notice, but what does that say about him?

I also don’t believe that he came up with that idea himself. I promise you, he did a lot of debate prep and his team discussed how to refer to her. Whoever made the decision to call her “Kay” blew it and Tillis agreeing to it shows, once again, that he’s a candidate who’s just not quite ready for primetime.

In 2010, I went through a series of debates with a sitting Senator and sitting secretary of state. Both candidates referred to their opponents by their titles. Richard Burr always called Elaine Marshall “Secretary Marshall” and Marshall always referred to him as “Senator Burr.” It’s a matter of respect for both your opponent and for the office. I can’t even imagine Marshall on a podium chastising Burr and calling him “Richard.”

If Tillis didn’t anticipate a backlash, he hasn’t been paying attention. Women voters have been saying for years that the GOP is out of touch with them and their needs. If nothing else, Tillis should have erred on the side of caution. When she repeatedly referred to him as Speaker Tillis, he should have taken his cue. Instead, he came across to some women as boorish and condescending. It was a self-inflicted wound.

Throughout the campaign, Tillis has made rookie mistakes that make him look less than senatorial. When Hagan originally accepted the invitation to the debate, she released an innocuous statement urging Tillis to accept a debate schedule “worthy of the people of our great state.” Instead of agreeing, his repeated attempts at snark on twitter make him seem petty instead of clever. 

Maybe the criticism is overblown and fanned by partisans, but that’s not the point. Tillis and his campaign should have seen it coming. The fact that they didn’t indicates they don’t understand the political environment well. Part of running a successful campaign is anticipating reactions and managing expectations. They failed.  


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