via Verne Strickland usadotcom 11/18/2014
Why Thom Tillis won North Carolina
One of the early myths of the 2014 elections is that Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) ran a great campaign, a talking point repeated by the talking heads in Washington without much supporting evidence.
In fact, a hard look at what actually transpired shows a completely different picture. Hagan had the wrong message, never corrected the high negatives that cast a shadow over her prospects and never built a lead outside the margin of error. Our internal polling showed that Hagan’s biggest lead was 3 points, immediately following a bruising Republican primary in May.
While the education attacks undoubtedly gained traction over the summer, we struck back with the facts: Education spending actually increased by $1 billion; teachers received one of the largest pay raises in a generation; and Tillis was the PTA president at his children’s school.
Hagan’s credibility took a major hit, when Tillis told his story and set the record straight, and she had no way of getting back the tens of millions of dollars her team had wasted on that line of attack.
When the spotlight shined on the race in October, Hagan committed yet another major error. After evading a tough question from Tillis during the campaign’s second debate, Hagan admitted in the post-debate press conference that she had skipped a classified Armed Services Committee hearing to attend a fundraiser in New York. We seized on her admission, and TV advertising soon shifted to that gaffe. Hagan’s team surely knew of the damage caused, mostly kept her away from the press for the remainder of the campaign.
At roughly the same time, it was revealed that Hagan’s family had benefitted from nearly $390,000 in stimulus grants tucked away in the very same stimulus bill she pushed. She struggled to defend the revelation and her campaign’s response TV ad acknowledged the severity of the political damage.
Hagan’s blind deference to President Obama was made more relevant to the voter when viewed through the lens of the stimulus grant scandal and skipping national security briefings. Voters were left with the impression that her priorities were to advance the president’s agenda and her own self-interest.
Meanwhile, Tillis provided the alternative — humble, decisive leadership that puts the safety and security of the public first and puts conscience ahead of party.
On the ground, Tillis’s campaign outmaneuvered the Hagan operation by targeting two key groups that delivered the margin of victory: conservative, rural Democrats and suburban independents. North Carolina has a tradition of crossover voting that Hagan’s strategists ignored to her detriment.
From 2008 to 2014, Hagan’s vote share shrank by 3 to 6 points in the suburbs of Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. And despite spending $13 million on TV, Hagan largely ignored the part of the state with the highest density of conservative Democrats, spending only $36,000 on broadcast stations in Greenville-New Bern during the final month of the campaign. Meanwhile, Tillis spent double that amount in the same market in just the final week.
This set the stage for Election Day, and it was clear that public polling and political forecasting had long overstated Hagan’s strength in this race. The results also showed that Republicans had the superior ground game, winning in the suburban neighborhoods that both sides targeted.
But most importantly, we had the superior candidate. Tillis is the embodiment of the American dream, and it’s why he won over suburban and middle-class voters: He came from a working-class family, then living in a trailer park making minimum wage and eventually became a top executive at PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM.
He then entered local politics because he wanted to build a mountain bike trail in his community and make a difference. His reason for running for the U.S. Senate was all about going to Washington to end the gridlock of Obama and enact policies to give all Americans the same opportunities he has had.
Thom Tillis is exactly the kind of candidate that Republicans needed to win this race, and he’s the kind of candidate the party needs to keep nominating in order to keep North Carolina red.
Todd is founding partner of On Message Inc. Bolger is partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies. They were consultants to the Tillis campaign.