The Limits of a Good Campaign

If Thom Tillis manages to beat Sen. Kay Hagan in NC on November 4, it will be a pretty good data point for political “fundamentalists” who think the actual quality of candidates and campaigns is of limited importance. That’s because just about everybody who’s not in spin mode thinks Hagan has done a much better job on the campaign trail than Tillis.

Indeed, as Alex Roarty suggests at National Journal, that’s a surprise, since Tillis himself looks and sounds just like a political consultant:

The 54-year-old looks like a political operative—fit, with closely trimmed white hair and a sports coat paired with jeans—and he talks like one, too. He’s the only Republican candidate in recent memory to declare that he wants to run the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and most who have watched his meteoric rise in the state Legislature (he was first elected there in only 2006) describe him as a political animal.

So it’s confusing that the story of his campaign would be one of strategic missteps, of struggling to build a cohesive case against his opponent. Only the last-month intrusion of the national political climate has given his candidacy hope.

Roarty also illustrates how the dumber aspects of that “national political climate” have intruded, obscuring an earlier debate over Tillis’ record of implementing what he’s called a “conservative revolution” in the legislature, particularly in terms of education policy and funding. Now media types aren’t interested in that substance crap any more:

Until a few weeks ago, this was Hagan’s secret sauce, the reason her campaign retained a slight lead while Senate Democratic candidates elsewhere wilted during the summer and early fall. The one-term senator had relentlessly focused on education funding in August and September, beating up on her GOP foe’s budget-cutting tenure like a boxer determined to methodically wear down her opponent with body blows…..

But a smattering of a few dozen students and journalists gathered to listen to Hagan had apparently heard enough. When the senator asked if the students seated in front of her—or the journalists milling behind them—had additional questions about her education agenda, nobody spoke. When an aide then asked the media if they had any questions on other topics, we nearly surrounded her.

Hagan tried to steer the discussion back toward education, but the questions focused elsewhere: Was she hypocritical to complain about outside-group money when some of them were backing her candidacy? Why was she not attending the debate later that night? And had she reversed herself last week when she said she supported a limited travel ban to Ebola-stricken countries?….

Journalists rarely ask the questions politicians want, no matter the situation. But the exchange neatly captured a shifting dynamic in North Carolina: Since the start of October, the issues at the contest’s forefront have moved from the local matters preferred by Team Hagan to the national topics, Ebola and ISIS, that have benefitted Republican candidates nationwide. And it’s created a sense that Tillis, whose own campaign has become a punching bag for Republicans critical of its efforts, could sneak through to a last-minute victory.

Roarty’s account is somewhat marred by the lack of recognition that U.S. Senators probably have less to do with Ebola and ISIS than with education, and that these “national topics” are mainly being raised to induce panic and fear rather than discussion. But in any event neither candidate could have anticipated the latest media obsessions, and how it might benefit a challenger like Tillis, who’s been railing at Hagan for every real or imagined shortcoming of the Obama administration for months:

“Whether it’s the IRS scandal, Benghazi, NSA, the Secret Service, it just really raises a question about this president’s ability to lead” [Tillis said].

And this campaign raises more than one question about a Senate candidate’s ability to do anything other than surfing the zeitgeist and hoping to be lifted by a “wave.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.