After years of anticipation, the 2020 campaign season is finally underway. Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina have selected their nominees for the general election, and the dynamics of each race are beginning to take shape. At present, the state of the races is clear: Democrats are set to post their best showing since 2008. In the face of this challenging environment, top North Carolina Republicans are making it easier for their opponents.
The state ticket will be led by Senator Thom Tillis and Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest. A year ago, both men occupied far better positions than they currently hold. Tillis was a Republican incumbent running in a presidential year–historically an advantageous position for a North Carolina senator. Tillis’s relatively comfortable standing was acknowledged by national observers, who tended to rate the election as Leans Republican or even, in the case of the Cook Political Report, Likely Republican. On the other hand, Forest was never considered anything close to a frontrunner, but he looked to have a serious shot at reclaiming the governor’s mansion in this center-right state.
All that has changed dramatically in the last six months. As the coronavirus took over the news cycle, differing state and federal responses to the crisis have fundamentally reshaped the political climate in North Carolina. As many as 76% of North Carolinians approve of how Roy Cooper is handling COVID-19 at the state level; fewer than half give equivalent reviews to Donald Trump’s management. Like a natural disaster, this crisis has turned the political environment upside down. Forest now resides in the long shadow of a commanding incumbent, and Tillis has been forced to abruptly and awkwardly distance himself from a president to whom he spent over a year ingratiating himself.
The NCGOP standard bearers aren’t compensating effectively for these changed fundamentals. In the governor’s race, whether by perceived necessity or sheer extremist conviction, Dan Forest has aligned himself with the radical ReOpen NC movement. ReOpen NC is deeply unpopular, a fact that the Democratic Governors Association leveraged into a powerful video released today. Senator Tillis, for his part, is seeing a year’s worth of strategy backfire. Having once remade himself into a warrior for Trump, he is now attempting a second reinvention as an admirer of the popular Democrat Cooper. Based on the last month’s opinion polling, his slipperiness has not impressed North Carolina voters.
In a climate of public-health catastrophe and economic collapse, members of the president’s party will always be hard pressed to maintain the advantages of incumbency. Adept politicians can do it nonetheless. For example, Democrats held the North Carolina Senate in 2002 through tough campaigns with superior funding. At least so far, NCGOP candidates are not meeting the standard of political adroitness. Thom Tillis’ and Dan Forest’s campaigns are distinctly lacking in this nimbleness–a gift to Democrats in what promises to be a strong year for the party of FDR and Jim Hunt.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.