So it's confusing that the story of his campaign would be one of strategic missteps, of struggling to build a cohesive case against his opponent. Only the last-month intrusion of the national political climate has given his candidacy hope.
Tillis himself seemed to acknowledge one of the problems halfway through a stem-winder during Saturday's rally. He had already checked off a list of criticisms that sounded like a summary of everything that's gone wrong for the White House this year: the difficult implementation of Obamacare, scandal at Veterans Administration hospitals, the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the arrival of the Ebola virus in Dallas. He eventually meandered into a criticism of the stimulus and Hagan's family members who benefitted from it, before seeming to catch himself.
"I could go on and on," he said. "The problem with Senator Hagan is that there are so many things to talk about that you can almost not get the message out."
Indeed, for months it was hard to tell what Tillis' case against Hagan was, beyond his contention that she was an ally of the unpopular president. It had the feel of a campaign that was reacting to the issue of the day instead of deliberately building a case for months. (The Republican even turned the series of high-profile failures of the Secret Service into an argument that if Obama couldn't protect the White House, he couldn't protect America.)
"People can only absorb so much, so you really have to focus on her failure with jobs and economy, her failure on the safety and security issues," he told me in an interview. "You have so many friends call up and say, 'What about this position or another position?' EPA regulations are another example."
I asked whether he still thinks his criticism of the Secret Service was fair game. "I think it weaves into the narrative of what I consider a crisis of competence," he said. "Whether it's the IRS scandal, Benghazi, NSA, the Secret Service, it just really raises a question about this president's ability to lead."
But since the onset of October, Tillis's kitchen-sink approach has notably left one issue out—education. It wasn't always the case: The GOP campaign had tried to push back on attacks that he had cut education funding and pointed to legislation he passed over the summer to raise teacher pay. But, outgunned by Hagan, one of the cycle's top fundraisers, and Democratic-aligned outside groups, the defense fell flat.
So Tillis moved on. And he did so about the same time the national climate seemed to take hold in North Carolina, giving him free rein to run TV ads about ISIS, Hagan's missed hearings for the Armed Services Committee, and the Centers for Disease Control's Ebola mishaps. For the first time, his campaign was cutting through. He's also benefitted from major investments from outside groups, local stories that put Hagan on the defensive, and a debate this week that Hagan declined to attend—giving the Republican essentially a free hour-long advertisement. The state's particular wariness toward the Republican Party, a problem in legislative races there, has lifted somewhat for the federal race.