This past April, Thom Tillis sat down for an interview with a conservative radio host in North Carolina, where the first-term senator is struggling in his bid for reelection. Tillis has been unable to create much of an independent following among Republicans in the state, so he framed himself as somebody who can stop Democrats from doing bad things in Washington if they take power.
There have been a few instances, Tillis reminded listeners, that Democrats have held majorities that couldn’t be restrained by the filibuster. “There’s only been three times when Democrats had a supermajority, and arguably bad things happened: It was Obamacare, it was New Deal, and it was the Great Society. It’s not necessarily that good didn’t occur as a result of that, but a lot of bad occurred, a lot of things that we’re still dealing with,” Tillis offered.
The New Deal and Great Society, constructed in the 1930s and 1960s, respectively, effectively built our modern social safety net through Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and aid to the indigent. Democrats added the Affordable Care Act to the mix in 2010 to spread health care coverage further than it had been, but by no means made it universal.
Behind Tillis’s comments is a radical view of the role government ought to play in the economy, one that hasn’t been en vogue since the early 20th century. But the way he framed it — “not necessarily that good didn’t occur as a result” — reflects the shifting politics in North Carolina, where a thoroughly right-wing view of the world can now be costly in a general election where, amid a pandemic spreading largely through a failure of collective public action, suburban voters are swinging heavily against the party in power.
But the problem for Tillis is that when he has had a chance to govern, he turned his hostility to the safety net into action, playing a lead role in blocking the expansion of Medicaid, costing some half a million North Carolinians health care coverage. Furthermore, North Carolina’s unemployment insurance system is in crisis today, and no man is more responsible for that intentional disaster than Thom Tillis.
When the former town commissioner in the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius first stepped into the North Carolina General Assembly back in 2007, few Democrats had any idea what was coming.
Tillis had come to Raleigh after beating one of the state legislature’s most virulent right-wingers in a primary. And the first impression some of his Democratic colleagues got was not as a future villain in the soon-to-come Republican takeover of North Carolina, but as a mainstream conservative businessman who could be a potential legislative partner. “Here’s somebody moderate that we can get along with,” Democratic state Rep. Pricey Harrison recalled.
Tillis helped alter North Carolina’s long-standing reputation as one of the more progressive Southern states, turning it into a sandbox for austerity and right-wing social policy.
But when the GOP flipped the legislature in the tea party wave and elected him speaker in 2011, Tillis, alongside state Sen. Phil Berger and, later, Gov. Pat McCrory, helped alter North Carolina’s long-standing reputation as one of the more progressive Southern states, turning it into a sandbox for austerity and right-wing social policy.
Now a U.S. senator, Tillis, 59, has become a top ally of President Donald Trump. He also has a negative approval rating in his home state, according to a July High Point University poll, and still considered one of the most vulnerable incumbent senators in the nation heading into an uncertain election season.
After four years as speaker and six as a U.S. senator, Tillis is more or less an avatar for North Carolina’s reactionary turn to the right. And considering the massive, if understated, influence he’s had on the state’s politics over the past decade, it’s more than a little ironic that 10 years later, Tillis’s own political future appears to be completely out of his hands.
Jeff Tarte’s first experience with Thom Tillis was on a baseball field. Tarte, then the athletic director of Cornelius’s youth league, quickly hit it off with Tillis, who was serving as a volunteer coach. “Classic Thom, being involved in the community,” said Tarte, who later served as the town’s mayor and a Republican state senator.
Tillis was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and according to a 2013 profile in Charlotte Magazine, his family bounced from place to place as a kid, moving 20 times by his 17th birthday. After graduating from high school in Nashville, he chose to enter the workforce rather than go to college (he later graduated in 1997, from the University of Maryland University College, an independent online school), and began a career that saw him rise to become a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He and his family finally settled in Cornelius, North Carolina, in the late 1990s.
Tillis’s political origin story is at this point well known in the state: Originally motivated by the desire to see the town build a mountain bike trail, he soon ran for and won a seat on the town commission himself. But Tillis was not long for the Cornelius town board; he chose not to run for reelection in 2005 and instead set his sights on the seat held by John Rhodes, a conservative firebrand in the General Assembly who was highly critical of the state’s leadership but mostly relegated to the fringes of the moderate legislature.
“John Rhodes was totally useless and ineffective,” Tarte said. “John was doing nothing for us as a community, so we needed leadership.” (Rhodes, now 52, didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview.)
Rhodes had the backing of some heavy hitters in the area, but Tillis — foreshadowing the fundraising prowess that would boost his rise to power — outraised the incumbent by more than 3 to 1. Others doubted his commitment to the conservative cause, including the Republican club of his daughter’s high school, where Tillis was serving as the school’s PTA president; the club backed Rhodes over their classmate’s dad. “We have little confidence his opponent can serve our district with the same distinction and courage as Rep. John Rhodes,” the club said.
Tillis ultimately crushed Rhodes in the primary with 63 percent of the vote, and would never again face a challenger for his House seat. Rhodes later held a press conference to charge Tillis with “bullying” and ethics violations, as well as being just as heavy-handed as his Democratic predecessors.
Once in Raleigh, Tillis immediately took to the task. “I thought he was sharp,” said former Democratic state Rep. Rick Glazier, who worked with Tillis early on financial literacy and criminal justice issues. “He was clearly learning at a high rate of speed.”
Harrison, a leading environmental advocate in the legislature, also saw areas where she could work with Tillis. “He was pretty reasonable on clean energy issues,” she said. “I remember conversations about discomfort with a gay marriage ban.”
Despite North Carolina going for Barack Obama in 2008 — as well as Bev Perdue for governor and Kay Hagan for U.S. Senate — the makeup of the legislature largely remained unchanged heading into 2009. But Tillis, after just his first term in office, was elected by fellow Republicans as the state House minority whip as well as the campaign chair ahead of 2010.
The Democrats had run the state legislature mostly uninterrupted for over a century, but that power was waning by the end of the 20th century, with many of the state’s rural Democrats lining up with Republicans ideologically. The elections of 2006 and 2008 provided a brief reprieve for North Carolina Democrats, but by the time 2010 rolled around — with its weak economy, torrent of anti-Obamacare sentiment, and a half-century of pent-up Southern realignment — the Republicans were in prime position to take the legislature.
The tea party’s rise during the debate over health care reform produced a wave of anger which the GOP rode to a pickup of 64 seats and a takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives. They also gained control of 20 state legislative chambers across the country in a census year.
So the national mood, long-standing dissatisfaction with the state Democratic Party, the rise of dark money, and a thoroughly competent Republican campaign operation all came together for Tillis and the North Carolina GOP. The Republicans won 16 seats in the House and flipped control of both chambers. And while some sort of realignment was in order that year, Democrats and Republicans alike give Tillis credit for the margins of that 2010 win.
Some of the largest sums that year came from the National Republican Legislative Committee, the Koch-aligned Americans for Prosperity, and Raleigh businessman Art Pope — a former state representative himself and a top Koch ally. All in all, the Koch political network spent more than $2 million targeting 27 legislative races in North Carolina, Facing South reported in 2011; Republican candidates won in 21 of those races.
“A significant reason the Republicans won in 2010 was the extraordinary effort Tillis put in 2010 in engaging substantial money for his caucus, recruiting a rash of good candidates, and relentless campaigning across the state,” Glazier said.
Largely as a result of Tillis’s success as the Republicans’ campaign chief, he went on to defeat three other candidates, including minority leader Paul “Skip” Stam, to win election as speaker as he entered his third term in office. Defending the new House leader from charges of inexperience, then-GOP chair Tom Fetzer said at the time that Tillis “wasn’t a career politician” and would approach the job like a businessman. “We need to disabuse ourselves of this notion that people have to be around there forever to effectively lead,” Fetzer told WRAL.
“When he was elected speaker, I was glad it was him, because I thought he was someone from their party who would lead from the middle,” Harrison said. “The alternative was Skip Stam, whose politics were really conservative … so I thought, ‘This will turn out well for us.’” She laughed. “I’m naive.”
After being selected as leader, Tillis’s initial posture indicated Democrats were right to prefer him over the more ideologically reactionary Stam. “I actually feel some pressure to look at the citizens of North Carolina and not be guilty of the same gerrymandering that we’ve had for the past century,” Tillis told reporters shortly after the election. “I don’t know how many meetings I have attended where people said they were sick and tired of the political boundaries being wired or making incumbents less accountable.”
But the new House majority’s conservative faction was louder and more influential than ever, and reports at the time suggested that Tillis had only barely secured the votes needed to beat Stam, a culture warrior of the right who would later help spearhead the state’s heavily ridiculed law barring local governments from expanding nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people (and raising the minimum wage). And so whatever moderate bent Tillis had in the minority crumbled once he was running a large and unruly tea party-driven Republican caucus.
Whatever moderate bent Tillis had crumbled once he was running a large and unruly tea party-driven Republican caucus.
Tillis was often criticized for limiting public debate and sometimes not even allowing Democrats to offer amendments. “He tacked right faster than I thought he would, and I became disappointed in his use of procedural devices to cut off the minority,” Glazier said. “I understood the policy change, but he wouldn’t even take legitimate Democratic amendments that weren’t trying to make changes in the policy directly, but to cut some of the problems on the margins.”
Tarte, not unsurprisingly, has a different perspective. “I find it kind of humorous,” he said of Democrats’ procedural complaints. “The state was under a very tight thumb under Democratic leadership.”
That’s not to say that Tillis didn’t often clash with other Republicans, including rivals in the Senate and some of his own caucus’s more conservative members. Redistricting, of which Tillis presented himself as a supporter, was one of the biggest points of contention.
“The official line that everyone was supposed to mouth was, ‘These districts are fair and legal,’” state Rep. John Blust, a conservative Republican, told the Greensboro News & Record in 2013. “But I’d hate to see that as our standard — you know, ‘As long as it ain’t illegal, we can do it.’ It was gerrymandering.” Blust was referring to a rash of controversial redistricting legislation passed by the GOP (what Glazier called “cut[ting] off the minority” in the legislative process).
“I actually feel some pressure to look at the citizens of North Carolina and not be guilty of the same gerrymandering that we’ve had for the past century,” Tillis told reporters shortly after the election. “I don’t know how many meetings I have attended where people said they were sick and tired of the political boundaries being wired or making incumbents less accountable.”
In 2011, the North Carolina House overwhelmingly passed a redistricting reform bill instituting a nonpartisan process, which was authored by Glazier, and supported by Tillis as well as a significant portion of the Republican caucus. The bill stalled in Phil Berger’s state Senate, and Tillis went to work in the House.
What the General Assembly ended up doing instead was producing some of the most gerrymandered maps in the country, ones which have been litigated and redrawn and litigated and redrawn on racial and partisanship grounds so many times over the past decade that they barely resemble what the legislature originally passed. House Republican David Lewis, one of the leaders of redistricting, even openly admitted that one reason his maps all but guaranteed a 10-3 split between Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina’s U.S. House seats was because there was no way to make an 11-2 split. (In July, Lewis announced his retirement from the House, heightening fears for the GOP that their House majority — and thus total control over redistricting in 2021 — is in jeopardy with three unpopular Republicans at the top of the ticket.)
Needless to say, it worked: Multiple congressional Democrats from North Carolina retired in 2012 either because their bases had all but disappeared from their districts or they were double-bunked with other Democrats. In the state House, Republicans picked up nine seats.
Policy-wise, with some immunity from popular opinion, the legislature under Tillis quickly got to work enacting Republican priorities, even over the objections of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. There were the typical conservative and Chamber of Commerce priorities, such as gutting long-standing regulations, budget cuts, a bill targeting the state’s diminutive labor movement, and a bill legalizing fracking. But the legislature also targeted social policy, including abortion and the death penalty.
Perhaps sensing the writing on the wall, Perdue declined to run for reelection in 2012, and was succeeded by the conservative McCrory, the longtime former mayor of Charlotte. (North Carolina was also one of two states, along with Indiana, to flip from Obama in 2008 to Romney in 2012.)
With a unified Republican government and an entrenched General Assembly majority, Tillis and company kicked into overdrive. Perdue had vetoed a voter ID law during her last two years in office; in his first year in office, McCrory signed one of the most extensive voter ID laws in the country, in a state still bearing the history of Jim Crow. Years of court battles and even a constitutional amendment which passed in 2018 have left the voter ID question unclear to this day, nearly seven years later. (As of the most recent ruling by state courts, ID will not be required at the polls in 2020.)
To this day, the state has not expanded Medicaid, as Tillis ushered through a law reserving that authority to the General Assembly alone.
One of Tillis’s highest priorities was knocking out one of the legs of the New Deal: unemployment insurance. The legislature, with Tillis in the lead, took just two weeks at the start of the 2013 session — the first time Republicans held a super majority and the governor’s mansion — to introduce and pass a draconian unemployment bill that cut the number of weeks the jobless could collect benefits from 26 weeks to 12, and slashed the maximum amount from $530 to $350. When the 2020 CARES Act added $600 a week to benefits for up to 13 weeks beyond a state’s benefits, the jobless in North Carolina were shafted. Where most Americans could claim up to 39 weeks of benefits, those in the Tarheel State were topped off at 25 weeks. Still, Tillis voted to strip those benefits from the CARES package. The vote was tied at 48-48, so Tillis came one vote short of succeeding.
The week of March 28, 172,745 people in North Carolina filed for benefits. Thanks to Tillis, they have long since exhausted their 12 weeks of state benefits, just as the job market is headed for a second nosedive, and Republicans in Congress are blocking efforts to extend the current assistance.
Not content to savage the New Deal, Tillis set his sights on the Great Society too. Medicaid, the program that provides health insurance to the poor and working class, was expanded as part of the Affordable Care Act. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts gave states the ability to opt-out of the expansion and refuse the federal money, and Tillis took up the charge. He helped pass the law shifting the power to expand Medicaid away from the governor and to the legislature. And his refusal to expand Medicaid — resulting in the launch of the Moral Monday protests — quickly gained nationwide attention.
While the protests grew in size, the opposition’s political power was nonexistent, and to this day, the state has not expanded Medicaid, as Tillis ushered through a law in 2013 reserving that authority to the General Assembly alone. An analysis by the left-leaning North Carolina Budget and Tax Center last year suggested that as many as 350 North Carolinians die every year due to the lack of Medicaid expansion.
One of the most well-known examples of Tillis’s House to wield its immeasurable procedural power to enact controversial legislation was the infamous “motorcycle abortion bill.” In April 2013, an innocuous bill had been filed in the state Senate which would have “increase[d] penalties for unsafe movements by drivers that threaten the property and safety of motorcyclists.” The bill easily passed, but then sat untouched for months in the House until, with little public notice, the House inserted new abortion restrictions into the previously existing motorcycle safety bill. McCrory eventually signed it.
Some see parallels between the way the legislature was run under Berger and Tillis — and later his successor, Speaker Tim Moore — and the GOP’s contemporary tactics in D.C. “The North Carolina experience from 2011 until 2017 was in many respects the model that was being pushed from Washington and then utilized in Washington,” Glazier said. “We went from being a legislature of real thought and consensus and attempts to cross party aisles to a legislature dominated [by] the ends which justified the means.”
2014 saw Tillis at the height of his power in the state legislature. But six years into the Obama presidency, Republicans had a prime opportunity to win back the United States Senate, and one of their top targets was first-term Sen. Kay Hagan.
North Carolina voters have a recent tendency to toss out senators after a single term. Before Hagan, the seat was held for one term by Republican Elizabeth Dole, but before her, virulent racist Jesse Helms held it for 30 years. (Sen. Richard Burr bucked the trend with the good fortune of his first reelection year falling in 2010, the year of the tea party wave. But before him, the seat was held by short-termers dating back to 1974. Burr, whose term expires in 2022, has announced his retirement.)
Despite his record of helping to turn North Carolina’s state government into one of the most conservative in the country, Tillis found himself painted as the “moderate” in the 2014 Senate primary, just as he had eight years prior.
Though he was by far the most well-financed candidate, Tillis managed to win in a crowded field with just 45 percent of the vote, but it was enough to avoid a runoff. And turning his attention to Hagan, Tillis seemed to inch toward a more middle-of-the-road approach, just like his conservative critics always said he would.
But during the general election campaign, Tillis couldn’t have sounded more different. Blaming his opposition on the finances of the state Department of Health and Human Services, Tillis flip-flopped, claiming that he had less of an ideological opposition to expanding Medicaid than a practical one. (The DHHS was still facing ongoing scandals.)
“I would encourage the state legislature and governor to consider it if they’re completely convinced they now have the situation under control,” Tillis said in an interview fewer than two weeks before the election.
In the end, it appears few people bought Tillis’s change of heart. A Washington Post exit poll at the time found that Hagan had overwhelmingly won the 30 percent of voters who were most concerned about health care; Tillis, however, won pretty much everyone else. Even though Hagan outraised Tillis by more than 2 to 1, Tillis rode the Republican wave — fueled by the ISIS takeover of large swaths of Syria and Iraq and the Ebola outbreak — into the Senate.
Tillis had an uneventful start in his new job. He was the lead sponsor on one bill that became law, which exempted payments to victims of state eugenics programs who were entitled to compensation from having that compensation factor into their eligibility for benefits. (Tillis had attempted to set up a compensation fund in North Carolina when he was in the legislature.)
Aside from that, Tillis was a reliable Republican vote in his first two years. Then came Donald Trump.
Tillis endorsed Marco Rubio during the Republican primary, but was not particularly outspoken during the general election campaign. After Tillis and other Republican senators met with Trump in Washington shortly before the Republican convention in July, he defended Trump to reporters, and later attended the convention. Tillis called Trump’s “Access Hollywood” comments “‘indefensible.”
In the early days of the new administration, Tillis sought to proclaim his independence from the Trump takeover of the GOP. Speaking at a Raleigh fundraiser hosted by the Jesse Helms Center in May 2017, Tillis said he wanted his tombstone to read: “Thom Tillis. Former speaker, former senator, RINO.” (He elaborated that he meant “Republican In Need of Outcomes.”)
Tillis voted with the president’s position 95 percent of the time in Trump’s first two years.
But despite his gesture at moderation, Tillis was an automatic vote for Trump in his first two years in office, voting with the president’s position 95 percent of the time. Even in his criticisms of Trump, Tillis’s quibble was focused on Trump’s tone and propensity to attack fellow Republicans. “I have not deviated once from any nomination or any vote that the president happens to be supportive of,” Tillis told the News & Observer after Charlottesville.
"You didn't like me at first, admit it," Trump told Sen. Thom Tillis, the North Carolina Republican, asking him to stand up. "Admit it, you like me now." Then jokes that Tillis calls all the time and wants money for North Carolina.— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) November 8, 2019
But as Tillis would soon learn, breaking with Trump even in rhetoric will win you nothing but a target on your back.
In February 2019, Tillis wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post denouncing Trump’s use of an executive order to declare a border emergency. But just a few weeks later, Tillis did an about-face and voted with Trump on the emergency resolution, saying in a press release that he was “incredibly encouraged by the historic commitment from the president to restore proper balance” between the administration and Congress, while at the same time voting to allow Trump to completely ignore Congress.
Tillis’s initial betrayal was all conservatives in North Carolina needed to start fueling rumors of a primary challenge. Rep. Mark Walker, a Baptist preacher, confirmed he was exploring a run, and although then-Freedom Caucus leader — now White House chief of staff — Mark Meadows said that although there was “zero chance” he’d primary Tillis, the first-term senator would get a “legitimate primary challenger.”
Finally, Garland Tucker, a retired businessman and conservative activist from Raleigh, announced a primary challenge to Tillis and ran an ad knocking Tillis on immigration. Tillis shot back by reserving $2.2 million into air time for an anti-Tucker ad.
All this came as it became increasingly obvious that Tillis was a top Senate target for Democrats in 2020, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee initially failed to sway top recruiting targets such as attorney general Josh Stein and state Sen. Jeff Jackson into the race.
The DSCC eventually endorsed Cal Cunningham, a one-term former state senator who last held office in 2003 and whose most recent run for office ended in a loss in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary to longtime Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. This time around, Cunningham easily won his primary against the slightly more liberal state Sen. Erica Smith, even with an intervention on Smith’s behalf (against her wishes) from a group tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Through June, Cunningham had raised more than $15 million and had $8.5 million on hand, according to FEC records. Tillis is right behind him, having raised $14.3 million with just under $8 million on hand.
Tillis has something else on his side: the fact that he’s grown closer and closer with Trump, not unlike the relationship Trump has forged with past critics such as Sen. Lindsey Graham. In June 2019, Trump tweeted out a full-throated endorsement of Tillis, and Tillis returned the favor by defending Trump at every turn, even after the Ukraine scandal broke and the House impeached Trump. Even Trump has poked fun at Tillis’s sudden change of heart.
In December, Tarte recalled, he was part of a meeting with Tillis in which someone asked what Trump’s position was on something. Tillis pulled out his phone, according to Tarte, said, “Hell, let him tell you himself,” and put Trump on speakerphone.
Tillis’s pandering, however, briefly crossed the threshold of absurdity earlier this year, when he solicited signatures for a “birthday card” for Eric Trump on Twitter. The tweet drew a scathing editorial from the hometown Charlotte Observer, which charged Tillis with being “so consumed with currying favor from Donald Trump that he embarrasses himself and the state he represents.”
Tillis is one of six GOP senators up for reelection in 2020 who had a negative approval in their home states before the pandemic.
Tillis’s turn toward Trump at first paid off: Tucker abandoned his primary challenge in December, and Walker — who was drawn out of his House district by yet another round of redistricting — backed off a challenge after a conversation with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, according to Politico.
But in the past several months, the pandemic, Trump’s non-handling of the crisis, and the resulting cratering of the economy have turned the dynamics of the race on their head. Though there’s still months to go until Election Day, polls currently point to something between a narrow victory and a landslide for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
It was always going to be the case that North Carolina is a different state than it was in 2010. In 2018, Democrats broke the Republican supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, mostly on the back of their growing strength in the suburbs. Tillis’s old House seat is now represented by a Democrat, and the Republicans were all but wiped out in the state’s two largest counties, Wake and Mecklenburg.
But Tillis wasn’t very popular even before the pandemic hit. A Morning Consult poll released in February found that Tillis’s approval sat at 34 percent as opposed to 37 percent disapproval, while 29 percent answering the poll had no opinion; his approval with independents was underwater by nine points, according to Morning Consult. Worse for Tillis is that polling indicates he’s actually running behind Trump; a pair of surveys from Democratic pollsters released in July found Cunningham with a several point advantage over the incumbent.
Tillis isn’t alone, however, as he’s one of six GOP senators up for reelection in 2020 who had a negative approval in their home states before the pandemic.
After the coronavirus pandemic hit, Sen. Richard Burr came under new scrutiny, with ProPublica finding that Burr had sold up to $1.7 million in stocks before the market crashed in early March. Burr has denied any wrongdoing, and has welcomed an investigation from the Senate Ethics committee.
Burr’s partner in the Senate moved quickly to distance himself, putting out a statement that Burr “owes North Carolinians an explanation.” But Tillis, who early in his first term in the Senate advocated for the right of businesses to mandate whether or not employees should have to wash their hands rather than government regulation, has seen his stock undoubtedly drop during the pandemic, and Burr’s alleged misdeeds certainly didn’t help him.
A Public Policy Polling poll found that a majority of North Carolinians think Burr, who’s already said that this will be his last term anyway, should resign; Tillis’s approval rating, meanwhile, sits at just 26 percent now, according to the same poll, with 47 percent disapproval.
Some of Tillis’s former Democratic colleagues hold out hope that Tillis will someday change his tune. “He’s still at a point where he can change what his legacy is. It’s never too late to get it right,” Glazier said. “Right now, I’d say [his legacy] would be leadership opportunities missed, and a lack of political courage when it was needed most.”
Given the political animal that Tillis has proven himself to be, however, even Tarte implies it’s unlikely that Tillis will ever rock the boat with Trump too hard.
“There’s a level of pragmatism in recognizing you can push things pretty far and have a certain degree of independence, but you have to be accountable to your voter base,” Tarte said. “You represent the entire state, but the entire state doesn’t vote for you.”