Thom Tillis and the Lessons of North Carolina

The state’s junior senator says the GOP’s gubernatorial loss should be a warning to the national party.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
Dec. 12, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

For all the GOP’s electoral success this year, Sen. Thom Tillis says the party should see North Carolina’s gubernatorial race—in which the state fired the first Republican governor it’s had in 20 years—as a cautionary tale.

The former state House speaker, who oversaw the chamber during Republicans’ incremental takeover of power in Raleigh, is vowing to work across the aisle in the Senate in the next Congress. And he wants his party in Washington to exercise caution in interpreting its mandate from voters in November. If not, Tillis said in an interview from his Senate office last week, national Republicans could be derailed by the type of distractions he believes cost Gov. Pat McCrory his reelection.

“The electorate of North Carolina really is a microcosm of the U.S. electorate,” said Tillis. “It’s a barely right-of-center state. … When you wade too far into some of the more controversial social issues, then you begin to see an increasing amount of opposition.”

In particular, Tillis referenced the state’s controversial “bathroom bill,” which sought to regulate which restrooms transgendered people can use. The issue drew national criticism and cost Republicans the governorship, even as the state voted decisively for Donald Trump.

“We had the fastest-growing state economy in the U.S, we were in the fourth quartile by just about every other measure when I took the gavel in 2011, … one of the most popular places for business relocation,” Tillis said of the state. “All that should have been the message and it wasn’t; it was overshadowed.”

Tillis, who spent four years as speaker of a rambunctious state House, is determined not to let that happen in the Senate. And as the first-term Republican, whose meteoric rise in North Carolina earned him the favor of national Republicans in his 2014 race, settles into the slower pace of the upper chamber, he’s carving out a role as a bridge-builder, determined to make sure Republicans stay on track.

“I’m here to find those people who are genuinely interested in solving problems,” said Tillis, who regularly requests get-to-know-you meetings with members of both parties.

He’s already met with two incoming Senate Democrats, including Sen.-elect Kamala Harris of California. Tillis said he was eager to work with the former state attorney general on sentencing and judicial reform—an issue on which he’s already cosponsored bipartisan legislation. He made news on that topic earlier this month, suggesting he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2020 if the Senate didn’t make meaningful progress on it and other issues. He doubled down on that claim in the interview, but said he did not have his sights set on any other jobs.

Tillis, who became speaker after just four years in the state House, had floated the idea of chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee before even winning his Senate seat in 2014. He was eventually passed over by another class-of-2014 senator, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, and will instead serve as the committee’s finance chair, a post previously held by one of his role models, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.

Still, Tillis’s colleagues suspect he’s on a path for leadership. And despite a rapid career ascent in both consulting and the state legislature, Tillis insisted he wasn’t deterred by the Senate’s slow-moving pace.

In a brief hallway interview, North Carolina’s senior senator, Richard Burr, lauded Tillis’s quick rise in North Carolina, calling him a “natural leader” with tons of experience. But, Burr said: “Thom is also in a class where the entire class, in their own way, brings a unique talent to the Senate.”

If Tillis does run again, a record of bipartisanship will be a helpful pitch in a state that’s expected to turn bluer in coming years. North Carolina’s rapidly shifting demographics have made it a consistently appealing target for Democrats, even after some recent failures.

“This idea of these states like a North Carolina that are purple states destined to be blue, I think may be working on an assumption that doesn’t have to be true,” Tillis said. He listed strong national defense, limited government, and even Second Amendment and antiabortion measures as policies the party can move forward on if it does so carefully, and with allies from across the aisle.

“I think for this opportunity that we now have at the national level, we have to be very measured and very methodical in the way that we implement a reform agenda,” he added.

And Tillis said his role as speaker gave him experience taking on his own party—something he plans to do more of as Republicans assume total control of Washington next year. In the state House, Tillis passed an agenda that included tort reform, antiabortion measures, and a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage—issues he said angered as many Republicans as Democrats, because his own party wanted to be even more aggressive.

“The people who would want us to go further on any one bill, they represent the single greatest threat to us making progress on the very subject matter,” said Tillis, citing examples of bills that have been vetoed or thrown out in court.

In the Senate, he pointed to immigration reform as an issue he would push his party to be strategic about. Shy of “amnesty,” he said he’s open to proposals from either party for what to do with the millions of people living in the country illegally.

“It takes a certain amount of pushback by those of us who are intent on making sure that we continue to do free-market, limited-government, business-friendly policies and keep that in the forefront,” said Tillis. “And you’ll take some criticism for that.”

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