Thom Tillis is the luckiest person in politics. A man with limited political skill and even less political conviction, he’s risen to the top echelon of American politics. He’s one of just 100 U.S. Senators and yet his favorability in the state he serves has rarely broken the 40% threshold. 

Now, his own pollster verified his good fortune. Tillis trailed his opponent Cal Cunningham throughout his re-election campaign. Not until Cunningham’s affair came to light did Tillis start to close the gap. His pollster, Glen Bolger, told Zac McCrary on the Pro Politics Podcast, “If that hadn’t happened, Cunningham would have won.” Tillis won in spite of himself. (Listen to the whole interview here.)

Six years earlier, Tillis trailed his Democratic opponent, incumbent Kay Hagan, throughout the campaign. Hagan’s campaign made the race about Tillis and his leadership over a state house that cut per pupil spending for public schools and cut funding for the university system. She almost bucked a Republican wave sweeping the country.

Then, in September, ISIS released a series of videos of the beheadings of American and Western journalists and Republicans exploited an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, stoking fears that the deadly disease was heading to the United States. They cynically called for banning flights from Africa as if it were a country. And just as those two issues dominated the public dialogue and the country was souring on the Obama administration’s response to them, Hagan made a self-inflicted wound. In the aftermath of an October debate that she clearly won, Hagan told reporters she had skipped an Armed Services Committee meeting to attend a fundraiser. With foreign policy and external threats dominating the public discourse down the stretch, the gaffe proved fatal. 

If Tillis gets any credit, it’s for choosing a competent political team and following their advice. They took advantage of vulnerabilities and kept the message focused on his opponent, but the Senator gets little credit for anything he has done. He believes good politics is following the whims of public opinion, not holding onto core values. He was Trump-wary until Trump threatened him. Then, he became a lapdog in the fashion of Lindsay Graham. As Trump’s fortunes fell during the pandemic, Tillis tried to put daylight between himself and the president. Today, he’s trying to reestablish himself as a serious person in the midst of the struggle between the tradition GOP establishment and the fiery populists who fueled Trump. You can bet he will end up siding with whichever faction becomes dominant–until they aren’t. 


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