Tom Tillis' Travails

Published May 16, 2019

By Tom Campbell

I’ve been watching the emerging election for North Carolina’s Senate seat and wonder if we are seeing symptoms of a larger trend. Our traditional tribalism – Republicans and Democrats - has morphed into contentious sub-tribes within each party. Instead of a sure re-nomination next year, Senator Thom Tillis faces a serious challenger from within his own tribe.

Thom’s Republican bona fides are impressive. A former business consultant, he was elected to the NC General Assembly in 2006 and served as the campaign chair for the House Republican Caucus that helped orchestrate the 2010 GOP takeover of the House. The new majority elected him Speaker for the 2011 session and Tillis served in that capacity until he left to run for the U.S. Senate. During his tenure Tillis led the House through some of the most dramatic political and legislative changes in modern history, bringing together an often-fractious caucus to pass legislation. Even the opposition grudgingly admits that “not only did he make the trains run, but they ran on time.” 

His 2014 challenge to first-term incumbent Democrat Senator Kay Hagan garnered endorsements from former Florida governor Jeb Bush, sitting governor Pat McCrory, former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

As a Senator his record is not stellar, but also not embarrassing - pretty typical for a first-term. He has voted with President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell more than 95 percent of the time, but he rankled ultra conservatives on a couple of issues, notably his vote to raise spending caps, the debt ceiling, and, his biggest stumble, Trump’s national emergency declaration over the border wall. Tillis wrote an op-ed piece saying he opposed the move, then caved after being beaten up by the far right and the President.

Raleigh’s Garland Tucker is promising to put $1 million of his own money into his primary challenge, buying some name recognition. We are already hearing charges that Tillis “flip-flopped” and that he is a RINO, not a true conservative.

Don’t count the Senator out. He is a seasoned campaigner who understands the power of incumbency, as evidenced by Vice President Mike Pence’s trip here next week for a Tillis fundraiser. He won’t be the last big-name Republican we see. Further, the 2018 elections reinforced the fact that North Carolina is a purple state, neither blood red Republican nor bright blue Democratic. The far-right faction may raise some money and make some noise, but they are not the majority. They could win the battle and lose the war if they defeat Tillis. A really heated and divisive March primary could either keep the party from reuniting in November or lead it so far to the right that they lose the moderate middle they will need to win the election.   

Democrats know that regaining control of the U.S. Senate begins here in North Carolina, however they also know they must field a candidate who can capture those moderate voters. They have conducted a major recruitment campaign and former State Treasurer Janet Cowell, who has twice before run and won statewide, is rumored to be the party pick. They’ve pledged to provide the money and all their resources to make it happen. 

North Carolina’s Senate race could be the premiere event next year.