Polls show Thom Tillis down in N.C. Is climate a factor?

Source: By Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 6, 2020

During Thom Tillis’ successful 2014 run for Senate, the North Carolina Republican denied that climate change was real — telling a debate moderator “no” when asked if global warming was a fact.

While that’s not true, Tills managed to squeak out a win with less than 2% of the vote.

He may not fare as well in his 2020 reelection campaign.

While Tillis now concedes that climate change is real and that humans play a role, political experts said Tillis’ years of supporting climate denial could cost him critical votes in what’s expected to be another close election.

A polling average compiled by RealClearPolitics found that Tillis was down 9.5 percentage points to Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. Notably, some of the constituencies Tillis needs to win — such as suburban women and Latino voters — are groups highly motivated by climate concerns, observers said.

“These kind of issues may not be grabbing the headlines like the coronavirus response and health care, but things like that could be meaningful” in a swing state such as North Carolina, said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “These kind of issues could really matter.”

Worrisome for Tillis is that his opponent has plenty of money to turn out climate-conscious voters.

Cunningham, a former state lawmaker, broke a North Carolina record when he raised $7.4 million in the second quarter. Yesterday, Cunningham’s campaign announced that — in July alone — he snagged an additional $3.6 million. That’s about $1 million more than the $2.5 million raised by Tillis in the second quarter.

Put all these factors together and North Carolina is one of the Senate seats most likely to flip parties, according to a ranking released yesterday by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Cunningham, for his part, has made climate change a priority for his campaign. In one ad, he linked global warming with flooding and severe storms that have hit North Carolina.

“We have to appreciate the human contribution to this global climate change we’re experiencing. Entire swaths of North Carolina have been set back, and we have to make sure that we’re ready,” he said in the ad, which features footage of state residents cleaning up damage to their homes.

Tillis has a long history of taking the opposite view. In 2012, when Tillis was House speaker in the state Legislature, lawmakers voted for a moratorium on planning for sea-level rise. In the 2014 primary election, Tillis said climate change was not a fact. He praised Trump for withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement.

By 2018, however, as years of polling showed that young people, including young Republicans, want politicians to do more about climate change, Tillis allowed that climate change was a fact. Tillis has changed his rhetoric around climate change in recent years, though he has emphasized natural climate change as being equal to human-caused climate change.

Scientists long ago determined that humans are warming the world at an unprecedented pace through the burning of fossil fuels.

“I think we have to come up with several strategies to recognize reality, that climate changes,” Tillis told Spectrum News in 2018. “Sometimes it changes just because it has over millennia, and other times it changes because of human factors.”

Tillis’ shift could reflect polling that shows more voters in North Carolina — including a significant number of Republicans — are concerned about the effect climate change is having on the state and want politicians to better plan for it.

Almost two-thirds of voters in North Carolina, including about half of Republicans, want their local government to include climate science research into their planning, according to a poll released last year by Elon University. The same poll found that 55% of state residents think hurricanes are becoming more severe. More than 8 out of 10 respondents, or 83%, said that climate change was likely to cause negative impacts along the state’s coastline during the next 50 years.

Climate is likely to remain a flashpoint issue, divided along partisan lines, but other related environmental issues don’t divide the state as neatly, said Michael Bitzer, political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina.

For example, Tillis should be worried about losing support in North Carolina’s suburbs, where some voters are broadly motivated by environmental issues, Bitzer said. Another group to watch: retirees who have settled in coastal counties that are more vulnerable to extreme weather and rising sea levels, he said.

Tillis has tied himself to the Trump administration, which has promoted oil and gas exploration and offshore drilling, which is extremely unpopular in the coastal region. In the mountains of North Carolina, similarly, Republicans and Democrats alike have opposed pipelines, which could eat into Tillis’ advantage with rural voters. Cunningham may be able to pick up environmental voters opposed to the Trump administration’s policies, whereas Tillis likely won’t be able to convert any Democrats because of the state’s extreme polarization, Bitzer said.

“I’m doubtful that Tillis, even if he was to make an entry into more environmental concerns and pushing for policies in that area, would get Democratic crossover support just because we are so badly polarized,” he added.

Early voting begins in North Carolina on Sept. 4, in the heart of hurricane season.