July 15, 2020/Press

Tillis Walking “Thinning Tightrope” Between His Subservience to Trump and Need to Persuade Independent Voters

Four months from election day and “fighting for his political life,” Senator Tillis is stuck in a familiar “tough spot” of his own making that he’s been too weak to break free of this entire cycle: caught between a President whose supporters he desperately needs yet is still “struggling to win over” and independent voters who have soured on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and the weak senators like Tillis who enable him.

Several new reports and interviews with conservative and independent voters in North Carolina this recess illustrate how Tillis is “walking on thinning tightrope trying to survive” — and why it spells doom for the freshman senator like it did former Republican candidates Kelly Ayotte and Joe Heck:

  • An independent suburban voter in Davidson believes Trump is “extremely divisive” as other suburban North Carolinians “recoil” at Trump’s actions.

Meanwhile, new polls show that Tillis is still “struggling to win over” base Republican voters, leaving him unwilling — and unable — to criticize Trump, while in-state press has noted, “I am not sure he has made any inroads with the independent base in North Carolina.” That’s forced Tillis to tie himself into knots, like this week when he tried to “yadda, yadda, yadda” away coronavirus in “the most severe form of political wishful thinking” anyone’s ever seen. Yet amid these contortions, one thing has remained crystal clear all cycle: “voters of all ideological stripes simply don’t trust Tillis.”

“Senator Tillis is still stuck walking a tightrope of his own making because he’s a weak politician who has always put his own reelection ahead of what’s right for North Carolina,” NCDP spokesperson Robert Howard said. “Tillis has repeatedly chosen the president he thinks he needs over the state he serves, and that weakness and willingness to cave on his principles is exactly why he’s down in the polls, getting outraised, and seeing former supporters turn on him.”

From NBC News, on how Tillis is “walking on thinning tightrope trying to survive.”

Jay Copan, 68, a conservative North Carolinian who voted for Tillis in 2014, said he will vote for Cunningham because he’s fed up with Trump and because “Thom Tillis is so in the tank for Trump.”

“I’ve donated money to Thom Tillis and supported Thom Tillis in the past,” Copan said. “On the issues, I could support Republicans more than Democrats. But I believe Trump has done so much damage to this country, and that also means throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

But appealing to voters like Copan would mean breaking with the president and the wishes of his passionate followers. They are essential to a winning coalition for Tillis.

“If you’re Thom Tillis, your bigger danger is being seen as abandoning Trump. That could crater him,” said political consultant Charles Hellwig of Raleigh, a former chair of the Wake County Republican Party. “But I don’t believe he will do that. He supports the president.”

From NYTimes, on how Trump’s “sagging popularity drags down Republican senate candidates”:

Michael Maddox, a 60-year-old teacher from Fayetteville, N.C., said he had been disturbed by Mr. Trump’s stated desire to slow coronavirus testing and by his use of racist language, describing the pandemic as “Kung Flu.”

“We’ve gotta get him out of there,” Mr. Maddox said, “and I think one of the ways to help do that is to try to remove some of the folks who support his agenda.”

Mr. Maddox said he has been unnerved by what he said was Mr. Tillis’s “silence” in the face of these and other remarks by Mr. Trump.

From CNN, on the “tough spot” Tillis has found himself in:

Those spending decisions underscore the “tough spot” vulnerable incumbents in battlegrounds such as Colorado and North Carolina face, said Nathan Gonzales, editor of “Inside Elections” and a CNN contributor. “They need to form a coalition of voters that includes people who love Trump and people who don’t like him very much,” he said.

“They need every last Trump supporter,” Gonzales added, “but also the independents and some moderate Democrats.”

The careful dance among vulnerable Republicans of distancing themselves from Trump without sharply criticizing the President comes as Democratic candidates find themselves awash in campaign donations as the general election draws closer.

From NYTimes, on how Trump and weak senators like Tillis who won’t speak out are “alienating” suburban North Carolina voters:

Down the street, as she loaded groceries into her car, Elizabeth Stewart vented her frustrations about Mr. Trump’s incendiary approach.

“He’s trying to appeal to a base that’s gotten more and more narrow,” said Ms. Stewart of Davidson, N.C., a small-business owner who supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race and Hillary Clinton in 2016 and will support Joseph R. Biden Jr. this year. “It’s just extremely divisive.”

From North Carolina to Pennsylvania to Arizona, interviews this week with more than two dozen suburban voters in critical swing states revealed abhorrence for Mr. Trump’s growing efforts to fuel white resentment with inflammatory rhetoric on race and cultural heritage. The discomfort was palpable even among voters who also dislike the recent toppling of Confederate statues or who say they agree with some of Mr. Trump’s policies.

From Washington Post, on how Tillis is performing “a balancing act that could give even a tightrope walker vertigo”:

Republican senators up for reelection this fall in tight races have been unwilling to publicly criticize Trump as he continues to fan racial tensions and struggles to control a pandemic that has devastated the economy and killed close to 130,000 Americans. But they are being careful not to embrace him either.

In their campaign ads back home, it’s as if the unpopular incumbent president doesn’t exist, as Republicans choose instead to highlight their own achievements or go on the attack against their Democratic challengers.

This deliberate approach underscores the difficult position Republicans find themselves in as they head into an election season that looks increasingly grim for the party. The senators don’t want to clash with Trump and rile up his stable of loyal supporters whose votes they will need to be reelected, but they also don’t want to hug him tightly and turn off more moderate voters whose views of the president have turned negative.

From PPP, on how Tillis is still “struggling to win over base” Republicans:

Tillis has just a 28% favorability rating with 44% seeing him negatively, for a net -16 rating. He continues to have a real problem with base enthusiasm. Even among Trump voters just 49% like him to 19% who don’t and 32% have no opinion. That sort of weakness with Trump fans was a big part of what cost Kelly Ayotte reelection in New Hampshire in 2016 and hindered Joe Heck’s efforts to win the open Senate seat in Nevada that year.