As Til­lis gears up for costly Se­nate race, Democrats search for a strong chal­lenger

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY JIM MORRILL jmor­[email protected]­lot­teob­

While U.S. Sen. Thom Til­lis is gear­ing up for re-elec­tion, Democrats are still scram­bling for a top-tier chal­lenger in a state that could help them tip con­trol of the Se­nate.

“It is clear that this is a re­ally good op­por­tu­nity for a pick-up,”

said Demo­cratic con­sul­tant Morgan Jack­son. “Til­lis is one of the most vul­ner­a­ble . . . sen­a­tors up for re-elec­tion.”

Til­lis, of Hun­tersville, holds one of 22 Re­pub­li­can seats up for grabs in 2020. Democrats have to net three seats to win con­trol of the Se­nate with a Demo­cratic vice pres­i­dent to break ties, or four seats with­out.

Til­lis started the year with

more than $2 mil­lion in his cam­paign war chest, ac­cord­ing to ad­viser Jor­dan Shaw. The sen­a­tor de­clined to be in­ter­viewed. Three Democrats al­ready have an­nounced: Meck­len­burg County Com­mis­sioner Trevor Fuller, Raleigh at­tor­ney Eva Lee and state Sen. Erica Smith of Northamp­ton County.

But Democrats are look­ing for can­di­dates with more name

recog­ni­tion and proven fundrais­ing ap­peal for a race sure to at­tract na­tional at­ten­tion.

“Ev­ery­body needs to un­der­stand that U.S. Se­nate elec­tions are na­tional elec­tions,” said Paul Shu­maker, lead con­sul­tant to Til­lis and GOP Sen. Richard Burr. “This will be a tier-one state, mean­ing it is very much a swing state.”

At the top of the Demo­cratic

list, ac­cord­ing to key Democrats, are At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Stein and An­thony Foxx, a for­mer U.S. Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary and Char­lotte mayor.

“Right now I think that’s the wish list,” said Jennifer Duffy, an an­a­lyst with the Wash­ing­ton­based Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port. “Democrats are go­ing to look for a very strong can­di­date here.”

Any can­di­date has to be able to raise money.

In 2014 Til­lis beat Demo­cratic Sen. Kay Ha­gan in a race that was at the time the most ex­pen-

sive in U.S his­tory. It saw $124 mil­lion spent be­tween the can­di­dates and an ar­ray of out­side groups, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics. A com­pet­i­tive 2020 race in a swing state with seven costly me­dia mar­kets also will be ex­pen­sive.

“North Carolina,” Duffy said, “is no longer a cheap date.”

Jack­son said Stein is fo­cus­ing on his own 2020 re-elec­tion bid. Foxx could not be reached. Char­lotte Mayor Vi Lyles, men­tioned by some as a po­ten­tial can­di­date, said she’s “very happy” in Char­lotte with her cur­rent job. Democrats also have ap­proached at least two other would-be can­di­dates.

“I’ve been asked to talk to some folks in D.C. about the race and I’m go­ing to do that,” said


state Sen. Jeff Jack­son of Char­lotte. “But I’ve been clear with them that we have a 14-week-old baby girl at home and that weighs very heav­ily on me.”

One who might run is Deb­o­rah Ross, a for­mer law­maker. Though she lost to Burr in 2016, she out­raised him $14 mil­lion to $13 mil­lion.

“I’m look­ing at the land­scape for 2020 and weigh­ing my op­tions,” said Ross, who prac­tices law in Raleigh. “I’ve been ap­proached . . . I think mak­ing a

de­ci­sion in Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary is too early.”

But be­cause law­mak­ers per­ma­nently moved the pri­mary to March, forc­ing can­di­dates to file in early De­cem­ber, some statewide can­di­dates al­ready have launched cam­paigns.

Some Democrats may be look­ing ahead to 2022. That’s when Burr has said he plans to re­tire, leav­ing an open seat with no in­cum­bent.

“For people like Stein and Foxx, these de­ci­sions are all

about tim­ing,” said Morgan Jack­son. “Is this the right time for them?”

Democrats are tar­get­ing a hand­ful of Re­pub­li­can-held states in 2020 in­clud­ing Ari­zona, Maine and Colorado. But in the na­tional con­text for Democrats, Duffy said, North Carolina “is a crit­i­cal part of the over­all equa­tion.”

A lot will de­pend on the pres­i­den­tial race. But if it follows pat­tern, North Carolina’s Se­nate con­test will be close. Til­lis won in 2014 with just 49 per­cent of the vote, Burr got 51 per­cent in beat­ing Ross.

Said Shu­maker: “Any­one who goes into a Se­nate race think­ing it won’t be a com­pet­i­tive state doesn’t know North Carolina.”


Sen. Thom Til­lis, R-N.C., shown at a Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ing for At­tor­ney Gen­eral nom­i­nee Wil­liam Barr on Jan. 15, started the year with more than $2 mil­lion in his cam­paign war chest, ac­cord­ing to ad­viser Jor­dan Shaw. His seat is up for grabs in 2020, and Democrats are look­ing for can­di­dates with name recog­ni­tion and proven fundrais­ing ap­peal to chal­lenge his re-elec­tion bid.

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