This time the empty chair was close to home.
It was at a restaurant in Birkdale Village, in a packed room at a U.S. Senate forum sponsored by a group called Lake Norman Conservatives. Three of the invited Republican candidates were there.
Missing: N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, who lives just 10 minutes away. He was at a Durham fundraiser.
Thursday nights forum was the fourth that Tillis has skipped as he pursues what he describes as a methodical strategy for winning not only the primary but a high-stakes general election. Critics accuse him of ducking tough questions and skeptical voters.
Its a careful balancing act, one that risks alienating tea party activists as he courts a GOP establishment that sees him as the best hope of ousting Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
By not attending these events, Tillis may be writing off a portion of the electorate that he potentially needs, says Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.
Tillis says hes taking the long view.
You dont look past the primary, but if you havent already planned (for a campaign) that goes all the way to November then youre putting yourself at serious risk of not doing what were all ultimately trying to do, and that is beat Kay Hagan, he says.
The strategy also allows Tillis to avoid the glare of attention, as well as tea party video cameras waiting for a gaffe or embarrassing moment. With targeted appearances and TV ads, hes been able to define himself on his own terms.
While relying on establishment Republicans to raise money, hes stood with some of their most outspoken critics on issues such as last falls government shutdown.
Tillis primary reflects the tension between the tea party and GOP establishment thats evident across the country.
Several incumbents including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham face challenges from the right.
Hagan is a top GOP target as Republicans shoot for the six seats they need to retake control of the Senate. Outside groups on both sides already have spent millions on TV ads in the race.
One GOP rival, Greg Brannon, called Tillis out at the Huntersville forum.
Mr. Tillis should be here, he told the crowd. Hes interviewing for a job. He should be here answering these questions.
In North Carolina, at least six Republicans are running in the May 6 primary. That could make it harder for anyone to win the 40 percent necessary to avoid a midsummer runoff.
This is Tillis biggest challenge because of just the turnout dynamics in runoffs, says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Washington-based Cook Political Report. He cant absolutely alienate these tea party supporters. (But) you also have to leave yourself room to move toward the center in the general election.
Last November, a dozen sign-carrying tea party activists protested a Charlotte fundraiser for Tillis that featured former White House adviser Karl Rove. Last year Rove launched the Conservative Victory Project, an initiative aimed at finding electable GOP candidates, which tea party supporters took as a declaration of war.
The chasm Tillis has to negotiate was evident in a fundraising email from Brannon, a Cary physician endorsed by several tea party groups.
North Carolina is a battleground state in the all-out war between grassroots conservatives and the Washington, D.C. establishment, he wrote. In one corner sits my establishment-backed opponent and his gaggle of high-powered lobbyists and D.C. insiders who flat-out HATE the Tea Party movement.
With 93 days until the primary, some say its not Tillis who should worry, but his Republican competitors.
Reaching a bigger audience
Despite his absence at forums, two recent polls show Tillis increasing his edge over the field and over Hagan.
A poll last week by Republican-leaning Rasmussen Reports showed Tillis leading Hagan among likely voters by seven points. That was a wider lead than held by Brannon, the only other Republican tested.
The poll also showed Tillis with higher ratings than Brannon among fans of the tea party.
And a January survey by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found Tillis widening his lead over four rivals. He had the support of 19 percent of GOP voters. No one else had more than 11 percent.
The poll showed Tillis with higher name ID than his rivals, including Brannon and Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor and former president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Tillis recognition can be attributed in part to the $300,000 worth of TV ads he ran last month.
Early advertising helped him, says Marc Rotterman, a GOP media consultant. Early advertising gives him street cred with the base. The other two guys I dont think you could pick out of a lineup.
But the PPP survey also showed more than 40 percent of GOP voters undecided.
Its still pretty wide open, says PPP polling director Tom Jensen.
According to one Tillis adviser, the key to reaching North Carolina voters isnt in the number of candidate forums. Its the size of the audience. And that takes money.
Youve got to be able to take this campaign to the mass media, the adviser says. How do you vote for someone you dont know?
Tillis has a wide fundraising edge over his Republican rivals.
With help from Rove and some of the biggest GOP names on Capitol Hill, hes raised more than $1.7 million. Brannon has raised $525,000. Harris has raised $406,000.
Frankly, if theyre not up on TV by mid- to late-February, I think theyve got huge problems, Rotterman says.
All that feeds the perception among some Republicans that Tillis is the only candidate who can beat Hagan. It was Tillis singled out in a television ad from the Senate Majority Fund, a group allied with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Hes running a well-organized campaign and already leads Sen. Hagan by seven points in the latest poll, Rove said in a statement, making him (one of) the GOPs best opportunities to replace one of President Barack Obamas key allies in the U.S. Senate.
Conservative on issues
Few people have risen as quickly in North Carolina politics as Tillis.
In 2006 he was voting on fire stations and baseball fields as a Cornelius town commissioner. That fall he was elected to the state House. In two terms, he never chaired a committee. Never moved off the back row.
In April 2009, Tillis walked away from a job as an IBM management consultant and a $500,000-plus annual salary. He put 45,000 miles on his blue pickup traveling the state to help elect Republicans. When GOP gains turned the legislature upside down in 2010, it was Tillis who emerged on top as House speaker.
When first elected, Tillis was widely regarded as a political moderate, more interested in pragmatism than political ideology.
As speaker, however, he has presided over sweeping changes in state policies from abortion and gun rights to taxes and voting. As a candidate hes left little room between himself and his rivals on issues, and often taken positions at odds with his establishment supporters.
Last fall, for example, he opposed the measure in Congress that raised the debt ceiling and ended the government shutdown. The position put him at odds with mainstream supporters such as McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, even North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr.
I supported the efforts to try to stop Obamacare, Tillis says. I thought the shutdown was a good idea and a bad execution.
In his TV ad, Tillis takes on Washington Republicans as well as Hagan. He criticizes Obamacare and the federal debt, which he says neither party has stopped.
Even Tillis website seems designed to appeal to tea party libertarians.
We must restore the original intention of the Constitution and redirect the federal government toward the purposes our founding fathers intended, it says. Government is too big, regulation is too comprehensive, and our liberty is being threatened daily. Thom will steadfastly defend our liberties and fight government over-reach every day.
Democrats call Tillis a tea partier in establishment clothing.
Hes taking all of these tea party positions despite the fact that hes spending his time with Karl Rove, says party spokesman Ben Ray.
Despite the polls, some tea partiers have little love for Tillis.
The Lake Norman Conservatives adamantly oppose toll roads on Interstate 77 or anywhere else. Tillis has said hes open to the idea as a way of widening roads to relieve traffic congestion. They point to his support by Rove and other Washington Republicans, who they consider part of the problem.
One Charlotte conservative, Chuck Suter, even made a video suggesting Tillis acted on legislation that benefited clients including car maker Tesla of a Massachusetts law firm run by members of his wifes family.
Several GOP lawmakers say Tillis played no role in legislation affecting Tesla. Tillis says he didnt know who the firms clients were. He calls the charge just another leap, and with this person, its a pathetic leap.
Whoever wins the GOP primary could find himself walking another tightrope after May 6.
Hes going to be facing a drastically different electorate from what hes going to be facing in the primary, says Tom Eamon, a political scientist at East Carolina University. North Carolina is a purple state politically. Someone viewed as too extremist in either direction is probably going to have a problem winning the state.
The Rasmussen poll found that 63 percent of North Carolina Republicans have a favorable view of the tea party.
But overall, the poll found more North Carolina voters with an unfavorable impression: 41 percent to 35 percent. Almost one out of four voters had no opinion.
Tillis believes hes got a resume of accomplishment that will appeal to voters. He plans to continue reaching wide audiences with television, but says hell do more public events, including forums, leading up to the primary.
Believe me, he says, if I could wave a wand and all I was doing was going to the forums, thats what Id do.
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