March 4, 2020/Media

MEMO: Tillis Limps Into General Election as “One of the Most Vulnerable Senators” In the Country

TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Robert Howard, NCDP Communications Director
DATE: March 4, 2020
SUBJECT: MEMO: Tillis Limps Into General Election as “One of the Most Vulnerable Senators” In the Country

Senator Thom Tillis is limping into the general election as “one of the most vulnerable senators” in the country, defined by his own weakness and still facing fractured support within his own base, dismal approval numbers, and recent Democratic successes and a changing electorate in North Carolina.


An “Olympic Gold Flip Flop” Becomes an Election-Defining Misstep
Senator Tillis’ “Olympic gold flip flop” on the emergency declaration not only cost North Carolina military bases $80 million, it defined the past year of Tillis’ reelection campaign. It proved Senator Tillis has no principles but his own political survival, leading voters to ask him, “How can we trust you?” It fueled a conservative backlash that still hasn’t healed, led to “strikingly” low approval ratings for an incumbent, and sustained negative press coverage that won’t go away.

Tillis’ flip-flop remains the inflection point of his reelection. National commentators said Tillis “caved like a $4 suitcase” and noted that he provided “distilled proof” of how Republicans have “abandoned principle for expediency and political survival in the Trump era.” The in-state coverage from local editorial boards and opinion leaders was even worse:

That election-defining mistake has fueled a conservative backlash, tanked his approval numbers, and put him on the wrong side of a changing electorate – and independent voters – in a battleground state where swing voters are crucial for statewide victory. (Read more on how the issue Tillis called a “short term distraction” has followed him all year.)

“A Snake”: Tillis Continues to Face Backlash from GOP Base
After his flip-flop on the emergency declaration, Tillis “lost credibility with North Carolina Republicans” and has spent a year trying — and failing — to earn it back. 

Since then, Tillis has been booed at three different Trump rallies, including one this week, and earned a primary challenger who forced him to bearhug the president, take unpopular positions, and spend heavily on primary ads. He served as “a wake up call” for other Republicans, who told each other, “be careful; you saw what happened to Tillis,” and Republican primary voters called him “wishy-washy” and a “snake.” 

Tillis ended the Republican primary the same way he started it: “under fire” from fellow Republicans and with a fractured base. (Read more on Tillis’ disastrous year with GOP voters here.)

“Strikingly Unpopular”: Tillis is Underwater with Voters & Key Demographics
Poll after poll shows that Senator Tillis’ “approval numbers are not particularly good.” National quarterly polling has found he has the lowest approval rating of any U.S. Senator. In a pre-primary poll from WRAL in Raleigh, Tillis was underwater statewide – including with key demographic groups such as women, independents, and military households. Another poll found him trailing his Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham by 5 points.

Tillis’ “strikingly” low approval rating has led one nonpartisan elections expert after another after another after another to shift the Senate race in Democrats’ direction, citing Tillis’ “self-inflicted wounds,” his “image problem,” and how his “personal favorability numbers are not good” because “voters of all ideological stripes simply don’t trust Tillis.”

Changing Electorate, Recent Democratic Wins Have “Complicated Life” for Tillis
North Carolina is a true battleground state that “has grown more Latino, college-educated and younger,” demographic shifts that benefit the entire Democratic ticket. Since 2016, more than 1 million new voters have registered in North Carolina. Among those new registrants:

  • Less than 60% are white;
  • 5% are Hispanic;
  • 61% are younger than 30;
  • Almost 25% of new registrants come from just two key urban counties: Wake (Raleigh) and Mecklenburg (Charlotte).

On top of an increasingly young and diverse electorate, “Democrats have had a good couple years in North Carolina, and that has complicated life for Sen. Thom Tillis.” Despite Trump’s narrow win in 2016, Democrats elected Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, and re-elected Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. In 2018, Democrats won every single statewide contest, won more than 50% of the vote statewide in state House and state Senate elections, and flipped 11 legislative districts that Trump carried in 2016. 

In 2019, Democrats overperformed in the NC-09 special election by 10 points, including a “28 point swing in Democrats’ favor in less than five years” in Mecklenburg (suburban Charlotte) and a 10 point swing in nearby Union County (exurban Charlotte). That enthusiasm continued to hold – more voters cast Democratic primary ballots in 2020 than in 2016 as “experts say there seems to be more enthusiasm among Democrats.”

Bottom Line: Senator Tillis enters the general election as one of the most vulnerable senators in the country facing a toss-up race because he’s a weak, self-serving politician who puts his reelection before the needs of his constituents. Voters don’t trust him, he still has to repair the damage he caused within his own party, he has the lowest approval rating of any incumbent Senator, and he is facing a different electorate than 2014 – all signs that point to North Carolina electing a new Democratic Senator in November.