Thom Tillis is running like he’s already wrapped up the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. He’s ignoring his primary opponents, avoiding joint appearances and saving his fire for Kay Hagan. It’s a fairly standard strategy for a heavy favorite but it might not work for Tillis.
The strategy works better for an incumbent trying to ignore an upstart opponent. Tillis is neither the incumbent nor does he have the name recognition and support to make the case that he’s the only game in town. While the latest PPP poll shows he holds a solid lead (19% to 11% for his nearest opponent), his numbers are still far too low to claim the mantle of inevitability. According to the poll, 57% of Republican primary voters still have no opinion of him and his favorability rating is upside down (15% favorable to 28% unfavorable).
Tillis is going to attempt an “up and over” strategy. He’ll try to build his name recognition and positive favorability rating before any of his opponents can start communicating. It’s a strategy better suited to a smaller state or Congressional District with no runoff provision and a smaller field of candidates. For his plan to work, he’ll need to have his support close to 50% before any of his opponents gets up on television. In a state the size of North Carolina, with its multitude of media markets, Tillis and his allies will probably need to spend close to $3 million in unanswered advertising before the beginning of April to reach that threshold.
In addition, by ignoring the forums and joint appearances, Tillis risks alienating the party faithful who want attention and want to see their candidates perform. At a forum in Winston-Salem last night, the Forsyth County Republican Party left an empty chair as a reminder that Tillis had dissed them. They may view Tillis as a prima donna who is inaccessible and further the narrative that he’s beholden to the establishment, not the rank-and-file who determine primary elections.
Finally, Tillis is missing out on the shared experience of campaigning that can lead to the strange alliances that form in primaries. To be fair, though, he also avoids the blood feuds that sometimes occur. Regardless, his absence makes him an even easier target and increases the resentment toward him as the better funded candidate. And his lack of relationships could doom him in a runoff that will require at least some endorsements from the also-rans.