With Labor Day past and election day a mere eight weeks from today, it’s time to check in on North Carolina’s US Senate race. No incumbent has struggled as much as Thom Tillis. Democrat Cal Cunningham has led most of the year, sometimes by eye-opening margins. Right now, Tillis trails Cunningham by four in the Real Clear Politics average.
Tillis has had difficulty consolidating his base. In other words, Republicans don’t really like him. He’s been all over the map on his positions and he’s changed his personae to fit whatever he believes is politically expedient. Voters see through his shallowness, but the GOP is starting to come home. The latest Monmouth poll has Tillis only trailing by one and garnering 90% support among Republicans.
Still, Tillis can’t catch much of a break. This week, he’s being dragged into a scandal of Post Master General Louis DeJoy’s making. Apparently, DeJoy asked employees of his company to donate to GOP campaigns, including Tillis’ 2014 Senate race, and then reimbursed them through bonuses. That’s a violation of campaign finance laws and DeJoy is now under investigation.
Tillis also can’t find a salient hit on Cunningham that resonates much with voters. He tried arguing that Cunningham continued to work for his company after he said he had left to run for Senate, or at least that’s what I heard, and that got a big shrug. Next, Tillis argued that Cunningham criticized the PPP corona relief program while is former employer took the money from the program. Again, that elicited a big yawn. They’re also complaining that Cunningham used tax breaks to make additions to his house, and while Cunningham did take advantage of an historic preservation program, who cares?
Tillis can’t find anything substantive or sexy to use as an attack on Cunningham. When he first got into the race, some Democrats bemoaned that Cunningham was a boring candidate who wouldn’t inspire voters. He’s also a squeaky clean candidate with little to criticize. In North Carolina, US Senator Richard Burr has built a solid career as a boring candidate, in part, because there’s not a lot to hate about him. Cunningham seems to have a similar profile.
For his part, Tillis may feel a sense of déjà vu. Back in 2014, he trailed incumbent Kay Hagan for most of the race. Then, post-Labor Day, the Ebola outbreak and ISIS beheading American journalists captured the attention of the electorate. A couple of missteps by Hagan and Tillis was suddenly able to make up ground and eke out a victory. His poll numbers are certainly better after the RNC than before, but he’s still got troubles and a lot of ground to cover again.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >