The plot thickens with the relationship between North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and Cambridge Analytica, the British firm that allegedly used unauthorized access to private Facebook information to create psychographic profiles that helped the Trump campaign target voters in the 2016 campaign.
Tillis downplayed the firm’s role in his campaign in an interview with Capitol Hill reporters, saying he doubted that the Facebook breach benefited his campaign. The senator admitted to meeting now suspended CEO Alexander Nix, adding, “I don’t recall it, to be honest with you, except that I think I was in the same room.”
It’s unclear whether Tillis himself had any interactions with foreign nationals employed by Cambridge Analytica during his successful 2014 campaign to unseat Sen. Kay Hagan, although the reporting to date indicates that the firm’s employees worked with the NC Republican Party in Raleigh on behalf of the Tillis campaign.
Whatever Tillis’ efforts to put daylight between himself and Cambridge Analytica, the money and messaging for the 2014 campaign — the most expensive Senate race that year — ran in the same direction. The reclusive hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer financed both Cambridge Analytica and a super PAC set up by former UN Ambassador John Bolton, and was recently named as President Trump’s new national security advisor. The Tillis campaign, the John Bolton’s Super PAC and the NC Republican Party all hired Cambridge Analytica during the 2014 campaign. According to a fascinating article published by Bloomberg in 2015, Cambridge Analytica dispatched employee Harris MacLeod to work for the Bolton super PAC, “which was attempting to bring more attention to national-security issues in three select Senate races,” and employee Tim Glister to “North Carolina, where he was tasked with helping the state Republican Party on behalf of Thom Tilllis’ ultimately successful campaign to defeat Senator Kay Hagan.”
Paul Shumaker, a Raleigh-based political consultant, told Bloomberg that he hired Cambridge Analytica to work on Tillis’ campaign.
Sasha Issenberg wrote in Bloomberg: “In North Carolina, where the company was paid $150,000 by the state party and $30,000 by Tillis’ campaign, Cambridge Analytica developed models to predict individual support, turnout likelihoods, and issues of concern that would recalibrate continuously based on interaction with voters. Shumaker says that dynamic process allowed Tillis’ campaign to identify a sizable cluster of North Carolinians who prioritized foreign affairs — which encouraged Tillis to shift the conversation from state-level debates over education policy to charges that incumbent Kay Hagan failed to take ISIS’s rise seriously.”
The John Bolton Super PAC designed five different ads tailored to different personality types to support Tillis, WRAL News reported on Tuesday. The ads ran on satellite TV, which allow targeting to individual subscribers. A frightening version designed for fearful people begins with ominous music and a narrator intoning, “President Obama is a better strategist for aiding ISIS than eliminating it.” The ad ends with Trump’s future national security advisor declaring, “American must make clear this November that they want a Senate that puts America first. That’s why I’m supporting Thom Tillis for Senate.”
A relatively moderate Republican with a cool reserve, Tillis isn’t really a comfortable fit with Trump’s flamboyant populism, and since the 2016 election the North Carolina senator has put some distance between himself and the president. On Tuesday, Tillis issued a statement with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) urging Trump to allow Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller to complete his investigation without interference.
Yet, it’s eerie how the focus on fearful themes surrounding national security, down to specific language, echoed from the 2014 North Carolina Senate campaign to the 2016 presidential election.
Introducing himself at his first debate with Hagan on Sept. 3, 2014, the candidate said, “As your US senator, I’ll go to Washington and I won’t be a rubber-stamp for Barack Obama or Harry Reid. I’ll go there to get things done and make America great again.”
Fatefully, ISIS had beheaded its second American victim — journalist Steven Soloff — the day before.
The first question from moderator Norah O’Donnell was whether the United States should strike ISIS in Syria.
Tillis got the first swing, and spent two thirds of his time bashing Obama before pivoting to Hagan.
“This is an example of where President Obama’s failed the people of this country and Kay Hagan has allowed it to happen, or has been silent with his inaction,” Tillis said.
O’Donnell challenged Tillis’ evasion, asking him again: “Should the US strike ISIS in Syria?”
And again, Tillis revealed that he had no strategy distinguishable from either Obama or Hagan.
“I think the US needs to take all actions to protect American citizens and protect freedom-loving people all over the country,” Tillis said. “I think the president is to a certain extent now trying to solve a problem that his inaction created. So I think that the president, who’s responsible for our foreign policy that he’s failed on in a variety of places around the United States, needs to start acting and showing some leadership. And I think that Senator Hagan needs to demand that he do [so], particularly in a state that has the largest military presence in the United States.”
While Cambridge Analytica and the election machinery financed by Robert Mercer may have given Tillis an edge, the 45,608-vote margin by which Tillis won suggests he probably didn’t need it to beat the pitifully inept Democratic incumbent.
Instead of hitting back, Hagan joined Tillis in piling onto Obama.
“I think one of the issues here is the president should have weaponized the moderate Syrian rebels earlier,” Hagan said. “Without doing that, that has allowed ISIS to grow…. Time is up. Action must be taken. The president needs to bring a resolution. He needs to bring a plan to Congress.”
The time was up, but not for ISIS.