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The Party Line is dedicated to examining regional issues and policies through the figures who give shape to them. These are critical, complex, and even downright confusing times we live in. There’s a lot to navigate nationally and in the Carolinas; whether it’s elections, debates on gay marriage, public school closings, or tax incentives for economic development. The Party Line’s goal is to offer a provocative, intelligent look at the issues and players behind the action; a view that ultimately offers the necessary insight for Carolina voters to hold public servants more accountable.

Tillis Begins 'Invisible Primary' For U.S. Senate


North Carolina’s 2014 U.S. Senate race is starting to shape up as most had expected—one of the closest fought in the nation. And when early punditry call it “a close fight,” voters can usually expect an ugly, knock-down drag out battle.

House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius could be one of several candidates seeking the GOP nomination to take on the sitting Democratic incumbent.  But many could be curious why the speaker decided to announce his bid nearly a year before the voters have their say on who will face Kay Hagan.

In today’s modern campaigning, early bidders have to begin a significant campaign that most (well, 98 percent) of the people rarely will see.  Dubbed the “invisible primary” campaign, candidates begin a quiet phase of several key components: organizing a staff, making a name for themselves, and not just rounding up supporters, but also rounding up the most important type of support: money.

As campaigns live in a post-Citizens United and SpeechNow era, the recent news of a super PAC designed to aid Tillis’ campaign is just one component of the strategy being developed.  Considering that super PACs spent more than $828 million in the 2012 election cycle, Tillis and other candidates will hope that super PACs enable their candidacy to reach beyond the traditional boundaries of campaigns, especially with the power of unlimited fundraising.

What the super PACs’ effect will be remains to be seen, but based on recent polls, one of the most critical components to this invisible primary season for the House speaker is to gain name recognition.

Even though he holds one of the two most powerful leadership roles in the North Carolina General Assembly (the other leadership position being the Senate President Pro Tempore, held by another potential GOP rival), Tillis has a single-digit problem: recognition. 

According to Public Policy Polling, Tillis pulls only six percent of the vote among fellow Republicans, while 60 percent of the state doesn’t have an opinion of the speaker.

Now some might contend that this poor showing means Tillis has an uphill battle. But the hill may not be as steep as some think, due to the fact that the 60 percent “unsure” audience could be moved one direction or the other.

Raising Tillis’ public awareness will serve as a major initiative of the invisible campaign over the next few months, and if 60 percent of a canvass is blank, that candidate can paint whatever picture they want with all the paint they can buy.

Problem is, if other top-tier candidates decide to try their brush strokes, they can throw as much paint as they want. Come next May, all the GOP may end up with is a bad version of a Jackson Pollock print.

Dr. Michael Bitzer is an associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, where he also serves as the 2011-2012 Swink Professor for Excellence in Classroom Teaching and the chair of the department of history & politics. A native South Carolinian, he holds graduate degrees in both history and political science from Clemson University and The University of Georgiaââ