How Thom Tillis Defeated One of 2014’s Best Campaigns
It’s rare a losing campaign has no regrets. But to the last person, Democrats involved in Sen. Kay Hagan’s re-election say they would not have done anything differently.
Hagan ran one of the best campaigns of the cycle, defying headwinds of an unpopular Democratic president in a state that elected Mitt Romney in 2012. But on Election Day, it was not enough, and she fell to Republican state Speaker Thom Tillis by 1.7 points.
“Except for if I could have run this race during a presidential year,” Hagan’s campaign manager, Preston Elliott, told CQ Roll Call. “Maybe I would have moved Election Day to August.”
Multiple people described the North Carolina Senate race as two different campaigns. From May through early September, Tillis was locked up in the legislative session, and Hagan’s team was in control. Then there was the final half a dozen weeks of the campaign, when the national environment started to shift the race in Tillis’ favor, and Republicans ably seized their opportunity.
The Tillis campaign entered the general election following a competitive multi-candidate primary. The campaign exhausted its resources to get at least 40 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff. Tillis, who opted not to step down as speaker when he won the nomination, went straight into the legislative session a week later.
Tillis’ campaign knew jumping from a competitive primary to a legislative session would put it at a disadvantage. The so-called short session dragged through the entire summer. Tillis reported weak second quarter fundraising, and he was unable to respond to the onslaught of attack ads from Democrats. Poll after poll showed him trailing by a narrow margin.
Republicans involved in the race give credit to Carolina Rising, a group run by North Carolina Republican operative Dallas Woodhouse, for giving Tillis some air cover as he tried to turn that corner in August and September. They ran positive spots about him, helping him to boost his image.
Throughout the ups and downs of the campaign, Republicans working with Tillis described the candidate himself as unflappable.
“Bombs could be going off, and Thom Tillis is the coolest customer I’ve ever met,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Political Director Ward Baker. “He does not get nervous, he does not waver. Literally, explosions could be going off, and Thom is like, ‘You ready to go to lunch?’”
It was not clear how much outside help Tillis would get in the home stretch. Heading into the final month, Republican groups faced a gaping $7 million spending disparity with Democrats. Only Crossroads had reserved airtime for October. The NRSC, already stretched thin, had not put any money in.
“It was a huge investment for us. And there was talk, do we put 5 [million], 6 million here, or do we go up and shore up these other states — because we were pretty confident in Iowa and Colorado,” Baker told reporters after the election.
They believed Tillis could win, but they knew they had to close the spending gap for that to happen. Outside groups, they were sure, were not going to fill a hole that big. In the second week of October, the NRSC’s independent expenditure arm put $6 million into the race.
“As soon as we did that, a race that could have been left for dead, you saw all the other outside groups do what we hoped they do, which was all of a sudden going to their donors, and filling a $2 million hole is a lot easier,” NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins said.
Hagan’s campaign team always knew they would face a tough race. She was a Democratic incumbent in North Carolina. The president’s approval rating had fallen fast. Republicans put a target on her back.
Her campaign team crafted a plan tailored to that reality. They raised money early, targeting any Republican who showed an inkling of interest in challenging her. To win, it was clear, the message could not focus on national issues. When Tillis became the front-runner, the path was clear: As much as possible, they would make the race about the Legislature, and the unpopular measures it had passed in 2013.
“Every single thing that we could manage, we managed; everything that we could control, we controlled,” said Forward NC Communications Director Ben Ray.
Education became the watchword. It was in almost every single ad Democrats ran over the summer, accusing Tillis of cutting $500 million from the state’s public education budget. In a world where Democratic incumbents were getting pilloried for voting with Obama, North Carolina was a bright spot: Everyone, even Tillis, was talking about education. Sometimes, women’s health or Medicare made an appearance, but it was always about Tillis and the Legislature, never about the Senate and Obama.
Elliott compared the campaign to a “Michelin commercial, where the car is driving around in pretty bad weather but operating really well ’cause it has really good tires.”
But as October approached, the weather started to get worse for Democrats.
The Islamic State had beheaded two American journalists, and Ebola had made its way into the United States. Suddenly, there were two major national issues in play that much of the public believed the White House had mishandled. The subject of the Senate race turned.
“There was nothing I could do to get people to talk about anything else,” said a former Hagan aide. “Wherever I went with Kay, she was getting asked about those things. … It would lead the news, it would lead the story, what Kay was saying about ISIS and Ebola.”
Democrats noticed a shift in the Tillis campaign’s messaging. Republicans were no longer fighting the education narrative. They had changed the subject.
A major turning point in the campaign, said Tillis supporters, was the Oct. 8 debate, after which Hagan admitted that she had missed a classified hearing for Armed Services Committee about ISIS to attend a campaign fundraiser in New York City.
It gave the Tillis campaign a concrete data point on which to hang the charge that Hagan, like Obama, was mishandling ISIS and the nation’s security. And while few people watch Senate debates, plenty of North Carolinians saw Hagan’s remarks. Three days later, Crossroads GPS, the NRSC and the Tillis campaign were all running ads attacking her for missing the hearing.
At that same debate, Hagan took heat for her husband’s company that received money from the government stimulus, which Hagan had voted for. The story had come out in September, but those attacks amped up in the final weeks, and, in an environment where distrust of Washington is high, they hurt her.
It was in the final two weeks that the everything started to tick into Tillis’ favor. By the NRSC’s modeling, Tillis was down 15,000 votes two weeks out, Baker said.
One week out, he was down only 5,000 votes.
By the Friday before Election Day, they gave Hagan just a 1,500 vote edge.
By Monday, the NRSC’s model put Tillis up about 10,000 votes. The victory on election night was just fewer than 50,000 votes.
“We prepared one speech for Thom Tillis,” said campaign consultant Paul Shumaker. “And that was a victory speech.”
This is the fourth in a five-part series examining the campaigns behind the cycle’s most fascinating races. Earlier editions examined Rep. John Barrow’s defeat in Georgia’s 12th District, Rep.-elect Elise Stefanik’s victory in New York’s 21st District and David Perdue’s open-seat Senate win in Georgia.