NC conservatives wonder: Where’s Tillis?

Greg Nash/Wikimedia Commons

Conservatives in North Carolina want to know where Thom Tillis is. 

The Republican front-runner to face Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) has been ducking the GOP base, subsequently angering some conservative activists whose support he’ll need to win a crowded primary election to even face the Democrat this fall.

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The current state Speaker of the House has skipped four candidate forums with his primary opponents, infuriating Tea Party activists as well as some more establishment Republicans, who simply want to get to know the candidate.

 The Republican’s strategy of avoiding his lesser-known opponents is one front-runners often employ, with mixed results. By seemingly bypassing his primary challengers and focusing exclusively on Hagan — as his first TV ad did — Tillis is seeking to cement his image as the inevitable nominee and avoid risking any gaffes in front of Tea Party audiences with the cameras rolling.

But some in the Tar Heel State say that strategy, coupled with a growing field and increasingly splintered primary, could backfire on Tillis. He is trying to win over enough of the GOP base to lock down the primary without alienating the independents and centrist Republicans he’d need to defeat Hagan.

“He has high negatives with the primary voters, and they get higher every time we see an empty chair at these forums. It shows he’s not willing to take the time to talk to us and explain his views,” said Sharon Hudson, a co-founder of the Lake Norman Conservatives, whose candidate forum Tillis skipped on Thursday. 

 “The activists and primary voters in North Carolina are used to being able to see our candidates and talk to them,” the Tea Party leader continued. “He thinks it’s in his best interest not to go to forums. It’s clearly his strategy, but I think there’s a good chance it could backfire.”

Hudson said she’s supported and volunteered for Tillis in past campaigns but had a falling out with him over his push to create toll roads in the state. She hasn’t committed to any of the other candidates in the race but said all of Tillis’s opponents are more appealing than he is. 

Tillis’s decision to skip these early candidate forums could prove to be a wise one, though. The anti-establishment primary field is splintered between a number of candidates, and by not attending, he takes away their ability to elevate themselves by drawing him into conflict.

His main rivals are Dr. Greg Brannon (R), a Tea Party favorite who is backed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and FreedomWorks; and the Rev. Mark Harris (R), a favorite of social conservatives who is supported by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and led the push to ban gay marriage in North Carolina. 

Primary polls show a wide-open race, though Tillis had a slight lead in a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based Democratic firm. If no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote in the May 6 primary, the top two finishers will go to a July 15 runoff, something Tillis’s campaign is trying to avoid because of the cost of additional campaigning.

Hagan is a top Republican target, and most public polls show a tight race between her and her potential opponents. But some Republicans are worried a bruising primary could hurt Tillis, sapping him of resources and forcing him to run to the right to secure the nomination. Hagan has a big cash edge, with $6.8 million in the bank to Tillis’s $1.3 million. Tillis has much more in the bank than his primary foes, however.

 It’s no shock that Tillis has avoided some of these forums. Three of the four events he’s skipped have been organized by Tea Party activists and attended mostly by movement conservatives who aren’t the natural sweet spot for the Republican businessman. The Lake Norman Conservatives event, for instance, was moderated by a conservative blogger who has repeatedly attacked Tillis in his writing and has protested outside his events.

Tillis’s pattern of avoiding activists’ events and focusing more on TV advertising and interviews with media outlets in the state could help him avoid any missteps that could haunt him in the general election. But it also leaves him open to charges that he’s refusing to talk to a critical bloc within the GOP — and his failure to attend a forum hosted by the Forsyth County Republican Party, an official part of the state party, even triggered anger from some more establishment Republicans.

 Forsyth County Republican Party Chairman Scott Cumbie blasted Tillis for not showing up at the event, even rebuking him in his introductory remarks.

“You’ll notice that at the end of the row, there is an empty seat. We have a sixth candidate that chose not to join us tonight,” he said at the mid-January event, saying he’d reached out months in advance to plan a time that would work for everyone and hadn’t heard from Tillis’s campaign until just days beforehand that he wouldn’t attend.

 Tillis’s campaign manager said he’s missed the events because of scheduling conflicts and promised he’ll attend some with the other candidates before the May primary.

 “A lot of this is just making sure the schedule works, trying to determine what kind of scheduling process we can get into to make some events work. We’ll look at making sure the events we do commit to have an ability to reach a broad range of voters, whether that’s through traditional media or otherwise. We’re going to try to target certain events that are associated with sanctioned Republican Party groups,” Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw told The Hill. 

 “We’ve said from day one we believe Thom Tillis’s record of conservative results appeals to every conservative in North Carolina, and we’re executing a strategy based on that. We’re talking to conservatives across the state,” Shaw continued. “We’re trying to make decisions now based on scheduling and strategy. There will be some we go to. We have to put our campaign, from a strategic and scheduling position, in the best possible position.”

 If Tillis ramps up his outreach to conservatives and attends more events, he could smooth over some of the simmering tensions. But until he does so, he’s letting his opponents attack him without a response — many of them, especially Brannon, have ripped him at the forums for not showing up.

 “There’s some real risk to this,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College in North Carolina. “The people who will show up to vote in the primary are the partisans, the intensely motivated individuals. And if he’s not addressing that core base, who is he addressing? Because the other candidates are.”