North Carolina is a state to watch not just for the presidential race, but for which party will control the United States Senate. Recent polling conducted on the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, as well as between Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, indicates that both contests will be close.
It is very possible that Trump wins the popular vote in the state and, with it, 15 electoral votes. It is also very possible that, alongside a Trump victory, Tillis loses to Cunningham.
Although this scenario seems counterintuitive, North Carolinians often split their votes between Democratic and Republican candidates. North Carolina is the definition of a “purple state,” with almost an equal number of Democratic and Republican senators elected since 1950.
In 2016, Trump carried the state by over three percentage points, but Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper defeated Republican incumbent Pat McCrory. The parallels between McCrory and Tillis suggest that 2020 might be a repeat of 2016.
One of the concerns that North Carolina voters had about McCrory was that they were not sure what kind of Republican he was. Elected as a moderate Republican mayor of Charlotte, McCrory moved to the right once elected governor, siding with the most conservative elements in the legislature and supporting the so-called “bathroom bill” (HB2), which prohibited transgendered individuals from using the public restrooms associated with their new identity.
Thom Tillis’ political history raises similar questions. Is he the pragmatic Republican he was when he served as the Cornelius town commissioner or in his first two terms in the state General Assembly? Or, is he the hard-right conservative who fought for low taxes and abortion restrictions as the House speaker? Is he supportive of Trump or will he stand up to Trump’s anti-conservative impulses? To the latter question, the answer is both. Tillis infamously opposed Trump’s executive action on taking funds appropriated for different uses and diverting them to construct a southern border wall, only to vote against a resolution limiting Trump’s authority to do so.
The question “Who is the real Thom Tillis?” is causing political figures and average voters enough concern to endanger his reelection chances, even if Trump wins the state.
It goes without saying that Tillis is no Donald Trump. Nor is he Jesse Helms or Richard Burr. There are very few people in the state undecided about Trump. In the presidential matchup polls with Biden, less than 4% of likely voters indicate they have yet to make up their minds about whom to vote for on Nov. 3. Similarly, North Carolinians were firm in their beliefs about Helms and Burr. Helms often won very tight elections, but his supporters turned out no matter what controversy he was embroiled in at the time.
North Carolinia voters are less certain about Thom Tillis. For much of the summer, about 15%-20% of likely voters were undecided in the Tillis-Cunningham race and even recent polling averages indicate that 10% of voters are uncertain.
Organizations that rank members of Congress on their conservative bona fides have trouble defining Tillis too. In 2019, for example, Americans for Prosperity gave him a rating of 100%, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rated him at 75% and the Club for Growth put him at 52%.
Another example of why voters may be unsure includes Tillis’ actions as a Senate candidate this year. A strong proponent of wearing masks, Tillis was photographed at the White House during President Trump’s Republican nomination acceptance speech not wearing one or social distancing. After the photograph garnered Tillis a lot of criticism, he said he “tried to lead by example on this issue, but last night I fell short of my own standard."
Despite rhetorical gymnastics on the issues and a campaign strategy based on reintroducing himself to voters and making Cunningham appear to be aligned with the most liberal elements and ideas within the Democratic Party, Tillis may lose a tightly contested race because he cannot answer the fundamental question: Who is Thom Tillis?