Tillis' endorsement of Bill Graham is more a rejection of Robinson and Folwell

Published December 28, 2023

By Thomas Mills

North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis endorsed attorney Bill Graham in the GOP primary for governor. Good for him. Implicit in his endorsement is a rejection of Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson. Tillis is trying to pull the Republican Party back to sanity—or at least away from insanity.

Robinson is an extremist who, Tillis notes, is largely unqualified to serve. He has no real experience in anything except making divisive statements and embracing conspiracy theories. Over the years, Robinson has demeaned members of the LGBTQ community, calling them “filth.” He’s said that he believes the 2020 election was stolen and he’s endorsed Donald Trump. His appeal is to people who want to tear the system down and ostracize people who are different.

In response to Tillis’s endorsement, Robinson lashed out, blasting the Senator for being a “RINO.” He called Tillis “North Carolina’s Mitt Romney” and Graham a “Republican John Edwards,” noting that Edwards and Graham are both trial lawyers. Robinson goes on to claim that he’s electable and leading Josh Stein in a recent East Carolina Carolina poll.

What’s most notable about Robinson’s statement is that it’s all about him. He doesn’t talk about the people of North Carolina or what he wants to do. He sees himself as a man under attack by nefarious and ill defined forces. He claims he’s not a politician but the whole statement is about politics, attacking Tillis and Graham, touting his horserace numbers, and bragging about all the support he’s got from other Republican politicians.

Robinson is actually a politician made in Trump’s image. He’s a thin-skinned bully. His response to Tillis’s endorsement was a long-winded attack on the Senator. Like Trump, he doesn’t have any real experience in governing. He portrays himself as a champion for all the people feeling victimized by a changing society. He’s loose with the truth and believes in dividing, not uniting, the state. As governor, he’ll serve the people who think like him and crush people who don’t. It’s all about winners and losers.

As for Tillis, I don’t want to give him too much credit. He’s never really stood up to Trump and he’s not come out for Nikki Haley, a rough equivalent of Graham in the presidential contest. He voted against impeachment twice, refusing to hold Trump accountable and setting up his current run for president. In his race for re-election in 2020, Tillis allowed himself to be humiliated by Trump in order to secure his support. I’m not confident Tillis would be a check on Trump if he becomes president again.

I guess the other interesting aspect of his endorsement of Graham, is taking a pass on State Treasurer Dale Folwell who is also running for governor. Tillis claims he prefers Graham’s resume to Robinson’s, but Folwell is the only candidate with a strong political resume. Tillis says Robinson has “virtually no legislative experience, very little business experience. We’re a very, very important state and we have to have people with that kind of experience…” Graham has never served in the legislature but Tillis and Folwell served together in the North Carolina house.

Still, rejecting Robinson shows that Tillis has at least some concern about the direction of the GOP and that he’s willing to fight for it, even if symbolically. Graham is almost certainly not going to beat Robinson and Tillis knows it. His endorsement is signaling to the party faithful that there’s more to politics than just winning. At least that’s what I hope he’s saying.