Republican Senate Candidate Tillis: A Primer
On Thursday, WFAE will take a similar look at the Democratic incumbent, Senator Kay Hagan.
The Republican challenger in the U.S. Senate race, Thom Tillis, has had a hand in every new law in North Carolina the past four years. As Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, Tillis decides what bills the House votes on. Along with Senate leader Phil Berger and Governor Pat McCrory, he has led a conservative shift, which has touched nearly every aspect of state law. But, Tillis says, he has had one overarching focus:
“Working to get our economy back on track by repealing regulations that didn’t make sense and reducing taxes so businesses have more money to grow,” Tillis says.
That echoes the platform Republicans ran on back in 2010. It was the depths of the recession. Tillis, in just his second term in the House, was already the Minority Whip—the Republicans’ second-in-command.
It was the midpoint of a rapid rise, says Davidson College political professor Susan Roberts.
“He’s gone very far, very fast,” she says.
With Republicans vying for control of the General Assembly, Tillis passed out rubber wrist bands with “Think Jobs” written on them and told members to snap themselves if they strayed from that message.
More importantly, he led their fundraising. He raised $250,000 for races around the state.
“He did a very good job of it,” says Representative Paul Stam, who was the Republican Minority Leader. “That had a lot to do with us winning.”
Republicans took over both Senate and House for the first time since the 19th century. They voted Tillis Speaker, over Stam.
For the first two years, the new Republican-led General Assembly faced opposition from a Democratic governor, Bev Perdue. Nevertheless, Tillis successfully pushed cuts to both taxes and state programs.
He can still rattle off the bills that gained enough Democratic support to override her vetoes:
“The repeal of the temporary tax—sales tax—that was harming poor and working families more than anyone. That was $1.2 billion. The repeal of the income tax surcharges; that was $300 million,” he says. “A billion dollars in spending cuts because we had to balance the budget. Medical malpractice reform. Regulatory reform.”
Republicans also controlled redistricting, and gained veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate in the 2012 elections.
The next year, they passed a sweeping tax overhaul. It created a lower, flat income tax rate for all income levels and removed some deductions. It also lowered the corporate income tax rate, expanded the sales tax, eliminated the estate tax, and let a tax credit for working poor expire. Tillis argues it has driven a surge in the state’s economy.
Many on the left respond the main effect has been to hurt the poor and middle class.
“The majority of the tax cut went to folks at the upper end of the income scale and to corporations. There’s no disputing that,” says Chris Fitzsimon, the director of NC Policy Watch, a liberal think tank. “I could talk for hours it feels like about the unwise decisions they made, most of them in the guise of cutting the budget so they could cut taxes.”
Lawmakers cut unemployment benefits to pay back a debt to the federal government. They cut state regulators, and slowed the growth of the education budget.
They also pursued a slew of other conservative priorities. Lawmakers passed bills requiring voter ID, putting a same sex marriage ban on the ballot, opening the state to fracking, rejecting Medicaid expansion, and privatizing the state economic development agency, phasing out teacher tenure, adding school vouchers, relaxing gun laws and restricting abortion coverage.
The speed and scope of the changes inspired a backlash from the left, which grew into the Moral Monday protests. More than a thousand people have intentionally been arrested in acts of civil disobedience at the state capitol.
Tillis denies he pushed the far-right agenda his opponents accuse.
Election analytics site CrowdPac estimates he falls in the center of the Republican Party.
Tillis says he has acted as a voice of moderation against the more-conservative state Senate. For instance, in the clash this summer over teacher raises, one of the campaign’s most high-profile talking points.
“I would have loved to have given the teachers an even bigger raise than 7 percent, but the Senate proposal would have required us to fire teacher assistants and teachers,” he says.
Now Governor Pat McCrory’s office says it’s a 5.5 percent raise, but the Senate wanted 11.
The divide created hard feelings between the chambers. Senators even walked out of one negotiation. And the bad blood then extended to fights over coal ash disposal and even when the legislature would adjourn. When lawmakers finally did go home, the campaign kicked into high gear.