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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