While NC Republicans Increasingly Criticize Cooper, Tillis Stands By Governor
As North Carolina’s stay-at-home order continues, hundreds of protestors – like Gary Jesmock — are having weekly marches in Raleigh.
And an increasing number of Republican elected officials like 9th District U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop and state Senate leader Phil Berger are calling for the stay-at-home order to end.
Then there is first-term Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who is taking a different path. He supports Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s orders to contain the pandemic.
“We’re moving in the right direction but we have not beaten this virus,” Tillis said during a recent telephone town hall with residents. “And the last thing we can do now is to let our guard down.”
Early in his term, Tillis said an example of government red tape is requiring restaurants to post a sign saying that employees must wash their hands.
“I said I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says, 'We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after they leave the restroom,'” Tillis said in 2015. “The market will take care of it.”
Today he’s encouraging North Carolinians to wear masks and practice social distancing, and he's chiding constituents for not taking the pandemic serious enough.
“I have a concern that we still have a significant number of people in North Carolina who are not heeding the advice on social distancing and wearing facial coverings when they go out,” Tillis said.
Tillis was elected to the Senate in 2014 by one-and-a-half percentage points in what was, at the time, the most expensive Senate race ever. His approval ratings are usually below 50%, and he has been twice been booed at "make America great again" rallies.
The Cook Political Report says North Carolina is one of four toss-up Senate races, along with Colorado, Maine and Arizona.
The Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, says Tillis’ praise of Cooper is all about the election.
“I think we see once again a very transparent election-year effort to grab a hold of what’s popular,” Cunningham told WFAE.
Cunningham, an attorney who served in the Army JAG Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Tillis should challenge the Trump administration to send North Carolina more personal protective equipment. The state says it has enough PPE currently – but not enough in reserve to reopen.
“First, he said the president exercised decisive leadership, but we still don’t have the testing and the PPE that the governor is calling for,” Cunningham said.
Tillis’ campaign said in a statement that the senator is supporting a “data-driven, bipartisan approach” to reopening. And it said Cunningham and Democrats have been criticizing Trump for sending PPE to China when it was charities who donated masks in the early days of the pandemic.
For Tillis, challenging the president has been perilous.
He initially opposed the president’s emergency declaration to pay for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Conservatives were furious, and Tillis reversed himself.
When Trump spoke in January at Central Piedmont Community College, he reminded the audience that he and Tillis have not always gotten along.
“We had a good relationship, but we sort of disagreed on a couple of minor policies,” Trump said. “That’s OK.”
Trump paused and then said: “Of course, I won’t put up with it for long, Thom Tillis.”
It’s been easy for Tillis to support the official recommendations from the White House coronavirus task force but challenging when asked about the president’s suggestion last week that people might be cured by injecting disinfectant.
The Tillis campaign did not disavow that comment but said that people who think they are sick should contact their doctor.
Last week, an 84-year-old retiree, James Rice, told Tillis by phone that he’s worried the Main Street stores in his small city of Mount Airy will never reopen.
“Being as old as I am I’ve been through a lot of things in my lifetime,” Rice said. “I’ve seen a lot of things. But I’m gonna tell you, this is a very serious, serious situation. Otherwise, you are going to come to Mount Airy, North Carolina, which was a lively little town, and you are going to find nothing.”
Surry County – home to Mount Airy – has had only 12 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and no deaths.
Tillis told him that he helped pass the Paycheck Protection Program. And Tillis said he hopes Cooper might allow places like Mount Airy to reopen earlier.
“We’ve got to get businesses back online,” Tillis said. “We’ve got to be smart about it. We need to start having the discussion now because I am optimistic that we may be seeing the peak of the curve.”
Click here for the latest coronavirus news on WFAE’s live blog.
Sign up here for The Frequency, WFAE’s daily email newsletter.
What questions do you have about the coronavirus? What has this experience been like for you? Share your questions below.