Tillis, rivals gear up for a costly Senate race. Could Democrats pick up a seat?

While U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis is gearing up for reelection, 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 reelection.”

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 Washington-based 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 expensive 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 reelection 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.”

Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.