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Why 500 Attack Emails Couldn’t Take Down Thom Tillis

Tillis defeated Hagan despite Democrats' best efforts and lots of money spent attacking him. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

There were a few constants during the 2014 cycle: death, taxes, my three young kids waking up before 7 a.m. and a daily Democratic email attacking North Carolina Speaker Thom Tillis. But in the end, even in the face of hundreds of blistering emails, the Republican challenger knocked off Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country.  

All of that time and effort spent electronically attacking a candidate who ends up winning begs the question: “Was it worth it?”  

Looking back, the North Carolina legislature was the national poster child for what Democrats hated about alleged Republican overreach, and Tillis led one of the chambers. In addition, Tillis and his fellow Republicans had to navigate a crowded and competitive primary. There was no shortage of material for Democrats to crow about in emails.  

“Speaker Tillis' Predatory Lending Pay-to-Play Exposed,” “Speaker Tillis Too Chicken to Defend his Fowl Priorities,” and “Speaker Tillis Entering Debate in a Panic,” were just a few subject lines. Also, “Tillis' Dark Money Allies Rushing to Rescue (Again).”  

From February 2013 through Election Day 2014, I received more than 550 emails from Democratic entities attacking Tillis. That’s an average of nearly one email per day. And those are just the ones I didn’t delete.  

“The emails helped control the conversation and the issues,” Ben Ray, the author and deliverer of at least 300 of the emails as communications director of Forward North Carolina, told CQ Roll Call.  

Another 200 or so emails came from the Hagan campaign, 18 from EMILY’s List (including “Thom Tillis — outright scary for NC women”), a handful from Progress North Carolina and 30 from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.  

It’s a “win the day” mentality that seems to have started with Rahm Emanuel’s Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006 and was accelerated by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign two years later.  

By some indications, the tactic appeared to be working in North Carolina.  

Democrats point to some tangible ways the aggressive email strategy directed at reporters was making a difference. An NBC News segment featured a focus group of Charlotte mothers who identified education as the defining issue in the race. Democrats also point to Tillis’ own ads, well into September, defending his record on education as evidence their messaging was resonating.  

“Even though Democrats are encouraged by their early positioning, they aren’t taking anything for granted,” I wrote in the August 2013 issue of The Rothenberg Political Report , after talking with GOP sources watching the race. “The DSCC sent operative Ben Ray to the state party in early April to bolster the communications effort and focus on getting bad press for Republican candidates. Only the most partisan Republicans would deny that the effort has been successful.”  

Roll Call declared the Hagan campaign one of the best in the country  even after the loss, writing, “Democrats quickly put Republican Thom Tillis on the defensive through early October, pummeling him with ads about cuts to education spending. By the time Tillis could respond, the narrative had stuck.”  

And survey data consistently showed the incumbent with a narrow advantage over Tillis.  

Democrats may have controlled the conversation — but they did so without changing the fundamental dynamic of the midterm election.  

Hagan lost the race, 49 percent to 47 percent, even though she outspent Tillis 2 to 1 , according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Democrats tend to blame the senator’s loss on the poor electoral climate, including news about Ebola in the finals weeks of the campaign. According to exit polling , 43 percent of voters approved of the job President Barack Obama was doing, compared to the 56 percent who disapproved.  

“I think we helped put the senator in a position to win at the end, even in a difficult environment,” explained Ray, now communications director for the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge. But it is difficult to isolate and analyze individual tactics of a campaign. Did the hundreds of emails put Tillis on the defensive or was it the $37 million outside groups spent to run ads against the Republican ?  

Only a fraction of what happens during a campaign matters. It’s just sometimes hard to identify the game-changing moments and tactics.  

"We know a bit more now thanks to the rigorous experiments that have been done in recent years,” said veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “Though even with them, null findings don’t always stop us from doing things that we have every reason to believe won’t matter."  

Uncoupling various aspects of a campaign is challenging, particularly because operatives work so hard to make them seamless. And the other party is pushing their message as well.  

“Everybody's got their job to do — the finance department, communications, the field team,” Ray said. “My job was to make sure the contrast was as stark as possible.”  

Democrats in North Carolina certainly aren’t the only ones to adopt the “death by a thousand press releases” strategy. I receive at least two or three emails per day from Republicans attacking former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. And it’s quite possible those thousands of emails will have been sent in vain if she wins the presidential election next year.  

But it’s increasingly clear that losses won’t put the brakes on the electronic ambush until campaigns are forced to pay by the email.  

As he reflected on last cycle’s race, Ray drew on the wisdom of Nuke LaLoosh, fictitious pitcher for the real-life minor league team in the North Carolina-based movie "Bull Durham," for some perspective.  

"This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball,” the pitching philosopher says. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains."  

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