Trump or North Carolina? Critics Say Thom Tillis Can’t Please Both

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., talks with Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Joshua Hawley, R-Mo., during a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP)

By Jesse James DeConto

September 8, 2020

With the number of uninsured and unemployed people surging in NC, Tillis questioned about priorities from both the left and the right.

Three-quarters of North Carolina voters think the country is on the wrong track, and the president’s approval rating in the state is upside down, according to a recent High Point University poll

And with his own job-performance ratings even worse and his party’s control of both the White House and the US Senate in jeopardy, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis has been in an awkward dance with the president, which can be a major concern when it comes to NC-centric concerns like Medicaid expansion, healthcare access and unemployment. 

Build a border-wall without support in Congress? Let Robert Mueller do his job? Hear from witnesses on Trump’s corruption and obstruction charges? Wear a mask or don’t wear a mask? Delay the election

These are the unprecedented questions that a Republican lawmaker like Tillis has had to answer in the Trump era, weighing his own sense of propriety, pragmatism and process with the president’s Twitter fiats and demands of allegiance. 

“If the party is now Trump, you can’t be too far apart from Trump,” said Meredith College political scientist Whitney Ross Manzo. 

Tillis has been buffeted by Trump loyalists insisting on more forceful fealty —last year, Tillis faced a Republican primary challenger claiming the incumbent wasn’t faithful enough to Trumpand by traditional conservatives like syndicated columnist George Will who want Congress and Senate Republicans like Tillis to stand up to Trump. 

Tillis’ seat is one of several toss-ups in swing states across the nation. In the midst of global crises around healthcare, the climate and economic inequality, the outcome of the presidential and Senate elections will impact the nation and the planet for decades to come.

Voters will decide on Nov. 3 if Tillis can simultaneously serve their interests—addressing soaring uninsured rates, skyrocketing unemployment, and a global pandemic that’s killed more than 2,900 North Carolinians— or those of the president. Although Tillis has emphasized his support for coronavirus relief on the campaign trail, he’s been sharply criticized for a lack of action on additional unemployment aid, as well as his votes to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, the nation’s healthcare law. 

“Every time [Tillis] speaks, it seems to be playing to Trump,” says former NC Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr. 

“Every time he’s in Trump’s presence, he makes sure he doesn’t have a mask on, which maybe says everything. Generally, the Republican-controlled Senate has, in my opinion, abjectly failed to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to keep this president in bounds. They all seem willing to let Trump do whatever he wants to do.”

Orr, a lifelong Republican, was a leading voice in an anti-Trump convention anchored in Charlotte last month at the same time as the Republican National Convention.  Orr has previously stated that he’d be voting for Biden in the presidential election. But he told Cardinal & Pine last week that he’d be voting for Tillis’ Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham as well.

Pressure from the right

Orr isn’t the only North Carolina GOP critic of Tillis.

Tillis and the other Republicans holding these contested offices, plus others like Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Texas’ John Cornyn, are among more than a dozen targeted by their own party’s Lincoln Project, accusing them of serving Trump’s interests rather than the nation’s. 

While GOP Senators try both to appease the president and appeal to their own constituents, moderate Republicans and some traditional conservatives are looking to Democratic candidates like Biden and Tillis’ challenger Cal Cunningham to restore some sense of unifying leadership, accountability, stability and cooperation after a cataclysmic 2020.

In a February video, the Lincoln Project described Tillis as too weak to stand up to Trump’s attacks on public education, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Then in May, the project linked Tillis to Trump again, describing them both as “obsessed with power … folks who don’t understand or just don’t care what the rest of us are going through.”

Tillis recently had to make a public apology after failing to wear a protective facemask at Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for a second term. 

“Tillis has been going around the state saying everyone should wear masks. Within the state, a lot of North Carolinians feel like Thom Tillis and Richard Burr have more national-level concerns than they do local-level concerns,” said Manzo. “You do one thing when you’re here at home and you do another thing when you’re in Washington DC, when it’s with them.”

“We need to get Thom Tillis out of the Senate and anyone that is part of the Trumpism era,” Scott Peoples, a former US Army lieutenant from Raleigh, said in a recent video for the conservative-led Republican Voters Against Trump (RVTA). “Hopefully we can rebuild this great Republican Party.”

Peoples urged other conservatives to vote for Biden and Tillis’ challenger, Democrat Cal Cunningham, another military veteran. 

“Please,” implored Shawn LeMond, a Navy veteran, former Republican state representative, and past Matthews town mayor, in another RVTA video.“Republicans don’t put children in cages. Republicans don’t spread conspiracy theories. Real Republicans don’t believe the coronavirus is a hoax made by the media. Real Republicans believe in this nation, they believe that all of us, every one of us has to work together to make it better. Real Republicans believe in NATO, they believe in allies, they believe in democracy.

“What’s going on now is wrong,” added LeMond. “What has taken over our party is wrong. It’s evil. As a Republican, as a Christian, we simply cannot allow this man to be re-elected. We must defeat his minions within the party that are causing this personality cult to stay.”

‘If you could only watch one race in the country…”

Both parties are targeting Tillis’ seat as a lynchpin for the 2020 election. The conservative, Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity is mounting its biggest-ever ground game to support Tillis’ re-election, in a state they and others see as a bellwether for the nation.

“If you could only watch one race in the country to predict nationally what will happen in the Senate, it’s North Carolina,” AFP president Tim Phillips told Roll Call.

Recent polls show Cunningham leading Tillis. Tillis’ approval rating is significantly lower than Trump’s. In the High Point poll, about one-third of respondents approved and another third disapproved of Tillis’ performance, giving him one of the lowest ratings in the entire Senate. Another poll has his disapproval rating much higher, over 50%.

The president endorsed Tillis last year after the senator reversed his position on Trump’s declaration of an emergency at the border. And while Tillis has been one of Trump’s most faithful allies when it comes time to vote on the Senate floor, he’s been pummeled by conservatives over his initial opposition to the emergency declaration, among other things. Some also noted Tillis’ absence at the NC-hosted GOP convention last month.

But some are questioning Tillis’ independence from the president, and whether it has ultimately hurt the state when it comes to lapsed unemployment and coronavirus relief.  

“It’s a real American thing to prize your independence,” Manzo told Cardinal & Pine. “Even if secretly you are a Republican and you like Trump, you still might like to see somebody stand up for something. Standing up to somebody is much better seen than being a flip-flopper. It’s really important, especially to the younger generations, to feel as though they are independent.”

“Opposing Trump hasn’t worked out for him too well,” wrote Thomas Mills, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant and publisher of Politics NC last month. “Tillis is going to need to find a way to thread this needle.”

Even if Trump were to close the gap on Biden, polls show that Tillis is farther behind, and not all Trump voters will be Tillis voters. Here in NC, more than one-in-12 Trump voters from 2016 say they’ll defect to Biden, according to a Morning Consult poll from last month. Even more of them say they’ll cross party lines and vote for Cunningham.  

Orr, the former judge, said he’s struggling to find a Republican he can vote for in November.

“You either toe the line to what Trump wants or you’re persona non grata. It’s a good way to kill a political party,” he said. “I will not vote a straight ticket, but I’m struggling. I’m sure I can find a Republican to vote for.”


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