The pattern of North Carolina Senate races has been fairly stable since the decline of the “Solid South.” The elections are always hard-fought–by some measures, the most competitive in America–but Republicans prevail more often than not. 2014’s race followed that trajectory, putting GOPer Thom Tillis in office after a savage $120 million brawl. History would seem to point toward his reelection if the 2020 race obeys established trends.
At least from a superficial perspective, Tillis occupies a similar position to his senior colleague, Richard Burr, four years ago. He’s a Republican incumbent in a presidential year. Historically, that’s been a pretty good place to be in North Carolina Senate races. But next year’s election isn’t bound to be a replay of Burr’s last run. For one, Burr is a quietly gifted vote getter–whereas Tillis ran well behind expectations in 2014. The dynamics of national politics may also be different.
Furthermore, historical patterns in North Carolina show signs of breaking down. During the years when they congealed, NC was not competitive at the presidential level. It’s now at least a second-tier swing state. As goes the top of the ballot, downballot races usually follow. Democrats can and may turn the state blue in 2020, which would place Tillis’ reelection bid in serious jeopardy.
The 2016 governor’s race provides further evidence of change in North Carolina’s political culture. No incumbent governor should lose in a growing economy. Yet Pat McCrory nevertheless fell to Roy Cooper, ensuring his historical discredit. At the same time, McCrory’s party gained ground on the Council of State. NC politics is just getting incredibly competitive and unpredictable.
So history will not inevitably predict next year’s results. And Tillis is burdened by shaky fundamentals. Almost every poll shows his approval rating in the thirties. He’s never built majority support, evidenced by his narrow plurality win and continued weak approval ratings. After five years in the Senate, he has no signature accomplishments, and his feints toward the center have been too halfhearted to appease anti-Trump suburbanites. Democrats can win this race despite historical headwinds. They just need a formidable candidate and help from a national climate that’s already tilting their way.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.