Less than three years ago, the sitting speaker of the North Carolina House won the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history, ousting the incumbent Democrat to claim Jesse Helms’ old seat.
So how is it that roughly three in 10 North Carolina residents either don’t know who Thom Tillis is or don’t have an opinion on the first-term senator from Huntersville?
A three-month survey conducted by Morning Consult found that 30 percent of voters in the state didn’t know or didn’t have an opinion on Tillis, the second highest total of the 99 senators tracked. Only Michigan Democrat Gary Peters had a higher number. The survey, whose results were released in April, found that 37 percent of voters approved of Tillis’ job performance, tied with Peters for the lowest number in the survey.
It was just the first recent poll to place Tillis’ numbers far below the 49 percent he achieved in the 2014 vote. An Elon University poll released in early May and a Public Policy Polling poll released this month both found Tillis with 29 percent job approval.
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Tillis hasn’t had the large, attention-grabbing platform that his fellow North Carolina Republican, Sen. Richard Burr, has as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee that is leading the way on investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Neither has been a big player on the health care bill that is soaking up much of the time and attention in the Senate.
Tillis, instead, has focused his time on work on issues surrounding military personnel, visas for foreign workers in key North Carolina industries and behind-the-scenes work on criminal justice and immigration reform, which could return as prominent issues at some point.
High population turnover in the state and local media’s lack of coverage of federal issues and the congressional delegation help account for why some voters don’t know Tillis, said Republican strategist Paul Shumaker, who worked on Tillis’ successful 2014 campaign as well as Burr’s 2010 and 2016 senatorial victories.
“You’re more likely to learn about a moose in a swimming pool in Oklahoma than you are about what’s going on in DC from local TV,” he said.
Add in the difficulty and cost of getting your message out to a diverse state covered by seven distinct television markets, and it begins to make sense why some voters might not have an opinion on one of the state’s two senators.
“It’s just a big expensive state where it takes a lot of work to get name identification,” said strategist John Anzalone, who worked on Democrat Kay Hagan’s senatorial campaigns in 2008 and 2014, when Tillis defeated her by fewer than 50,000 votes.
“He’s also suffering from the fact that there’s also tough perceptions right now about Republicans, about the health care bill, about not getting anything done,” Anzalone said. “The party that is supposed to be the change agent always gets punished when there isn’t enough change. We saw that with Obama and the Democrats. The Republicans are getting a little taste of it.”
The share of voters who disapprove of Tillis varied widely in the results: 30 percent according to Morning Consult, 39 percent according to Elon and 47 percent according to Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based Democratic firm.
Those around Tillis don’t acknowledge any alarm at the ratings, pointing out that Hagan faced similar numbers at this point in her term. An October 2009 Elon poll had Hagan at 35 percent approval and 35 percent disapproval, with 29 percent of respondents saying they did not know. Burr, at this point in his second term in 2011, had 42 percent job approval ratings.
“You’ve got to recalibrate your thinking when it comes to North Carolina. An incumbent above the 40-percent threshold is a strong incumbent in North Carolina. The old 50-percent threshold when it comes to ballot tests doesn’t hold water,” Shumaker said. “I’ve seen nothing in Tillis’ numbers that are concerning to me at all, given the timeline we have to operate with.”
Tillis, after all, is not quite halfway through his first term, leaving plenty of time for the 56-year-old former business consultant to raise his profile. It also leaves time for his party to produce results, something Tillis seems eager to play a role in.
In a May speech in downtown Raleigh, Tillis said what Republicans “need to do is be the party of results.” He quipped that he wanted to be known as a “Republican In Need of Outcomes,” a play on the RINO – Republican In Name Only – tag that often gets applied to moderate party members.
Tillis has reached across the aisle, working with Democrats on several issues, including a bill excluding payments from state eugenics compensations programs from consideration in determining eligibility for public benefits. The bill, signed by former President Barack Obama, included Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner as co-sponsors along with Burr.
In a January 2017 opinion piece, Tillis argued that “the American people didn’t give the GOP a stamp of approval or a mandate to ram through an ideologically-driven, far-right agenda,” a stance that earned a rebuke from conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Tillis said President Donald Trump made it clear he wanted to “cut deals and deliver results.”
With Senate Republicans grasping for a way forward on the stalled health care bill, Tillis indicated he was open to ideas that might push it toward the 51 votes it would take to pass the Senate, including keeping some of the taxes on high-income earners implemented by the Affordable Care Act. Conservative activists want Republicans to make good on their long-promised repeal of the ACA, also known as Obamacare.
Liberal groups gather frequently at Tillis’s office on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh to protest. On Thursday, members of a coalition backing universal public health insurance gathered there as part of a series of sit-ins at congressional offices around the country.
One of the participants, Michael Eisenberg of Raleigh, said protesters in his area find it easier to focus on Tillis because his office is closer than Burr’s office in Winston-Salem. He said some people contacting Tillis’ office have trouble reaching anyone.
“Tillis says one minute he is looking at the bill and then his next statement is we are going to do anything we can to get 51 votes. What does that tell the American people?” Eisenberg said.
The bill’s unpopularity, its uncertainty and Trump’s approval ratings could be part of what’s dragging down Tillis’ numbers, said Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College.
“The most recent Senate health care bill has approval in the low teens, and Republicans are still trying to figure out how to get the measure approved. When you’re dealing with something with 15 to 20 percent approval, it could have some down draft associated,” Bitzer said.
“Since he’s up for re-election in the next presidential cycle, it’s tied not just to the health bill, but a broader connection with Donald Trump. If Trump is going into an election at his current poll numbers, that is not going to be good for Republican members running on the same ticket. But three years is a long way off.”
Tillis’ staff insists he worries only about serving the state, not an election that is still three years away.
“No one worries about these numbers less than Thom Tillis. It doesn’t affect his performance one bit,” said Jordan Shaw, Tillis’ state director and his 2014 campaign director. “We are focused on doing our jobs; that’s our focus. When the time comes, we’re going to have a heck of a story to tell.”
They also might have a lot of money to tell that story. In the 2014 race, Tillis, Hagan and outside groups spent more than $112 million, according to OpenSecrets.org, making it the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history. Three Senate races bested that mark in 2016 — Pennsylvania ($168 million), New Hampshire ($126 million) and Nevada ($117 million).
But given North Carolina’s ideological split – “this is the purplest of purple states,” Anzalone said – and likely status as a swing state for both the presidential race and Senate, Shumaker anticipates the 2020 race to challenge for the record once again, especially with the need to advertise in television markets in Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro/Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Greenville, Wilmington and Norfolk, Va., for the northeast corner of the state at a cost of $1 million per week.
Reaching the independent voters in the middle, those who may not have an opinion on Tillis at the moment, will be key.
“The softness of the numbers are very much a reflection of the state,” Shumaker said. “North Carolina will likely be in the top five of U.S. Senate races in the 2020 cycle, and the probability it is the No. 1 or 2 Senate race is greater than that it’s not.”
Staff writer Matthew Adams contributed to this report from Raleigh.
Brian Murphy: 202-383-6089; @MurphinDC