North Carolina has a long history of revolving US Senate seats. The seat Sen. Thom Tillis holds has flipped every cycle since Jesse Helms gave it up in 2002. The other Senate seat, the one Richard Burr holds, had flipped every cycle since Sam Ervin retired in 1974 until Burr won re-election in 2010. In other words, North Carolina has a 45 year history of one Senate seat flipping every six years while the other stays firmly Republican. If Tillis wins re-election in 2020, Republicans will have held both U.S. Senate seats in North Carolina for more than six years for the first time in history .
While nobody has hit the panic button yet, Democrats are quietly worrying that they’re going to miss an opportunity. No top-tier candidates have come forward. The party has been here before, though.
In 2007, nobody wanted to take on Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole. She was elected in 2002 with almost rock star status—the local girl who came back home after reaching the heights of power. She had served in numerous administrations and as head of the Red Cross. Her husband, former US Senator Bob Dole, had been the Republican nominee for president just six years before. As a Senator, she had served without controversy and seemed a lock for re-election in 2008.
The Democratic opponents who did step up that year didn’t look too formidable, but the year was historic. Jim Neal was the first openly gay man to run for US Senate in North Carolina. His campaign energized young people, particularly gay ones, across the state. The DSCC recruited state Senator Kay Hagan from Greensboro to run and she entered the race in October 2007. When she won the primary, she became the first woman to be the Democratic nominee for US Senate from the state. She went on to unseat Dole in November when Barack Obama also carried the state.
In 2014, Hagan faced off against Tillis who was Speaker of the North Carolina House. Hagan dominated the race most of the year, keeping the debate focused more on Tillis’ record as Speaker than hers as US Senator. Momentum shifted to Tillis in the final weeks of the election as ISIS and ebola dominated the news cycle. He won the closest and most expensive race of the cycle.
Democrats clearly have an opportunity to keep the tradition of the revolving seat alive. With Tillis’ recent flip-flop on his position on President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, several potential candidates are taking a renewed interest in the seat. Tillis is seen as particularly vulnerable in a race that should already have been one of the most competitive in the nation. In the scheme of the election cycle, it’s early yet, but somebody needs to step up before the end of summer. Otherwise, expect a crowded primary full of second and third their candidates, a scenario Tillis and the the Republicans would welcome.
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 >