NC’s US Senate Race is Bigger Than Any Scandal. It’s Bigger Than Tillis and Cunningham.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., speaks during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Ken Cedeno/Pool via AP)

By Billy Ball

October 15, 2020

Thom Tillis wants voters to think only about the last 30 days of this race. But they should recall instead a decade of ruinous GOP leadership under Tillis. 

When I think about Thom Tillis, I think about Jan. 26, 2011.

North Carolina’s state legislature was swearing in its first Republican majority in both chambers in a century. And Tillis, an IBM consultant from a Charlotte suburb, was their choice for state House speaker. 

It was my first time on the House floor. I’d violated the dress code by leaving my blazer at home. Tillis, a square-jawed, 50-year-old with a well-tailored suit, ascended to the speaker’s podium like a conquering hero, trailed by a line of cheering GOP colleagues. 

There was such optimism for Republicans, who’d long been shut out in this historically moderate state legislature. A nationwide recession had gutted NC’s manufacturing economy. And Democrats, troubled by a series of controversies, were reeling. Republicans were going to be better, they insisted.

It didn’t turn out that way. 

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With Tillis as House speaker, Republicans, who’d long complained of Democrats’ gerrymandering, gerrymandered harder and more effectively. Their agenda was as reactionary and divisive as any this state has ever seen, loaded with attacks on voting rights, LGBTQ people, and reproductive rights. 

It’s necessary to remember all of this because today the media are swarming Tillis’ challenger for the US Senate, Cal Cunningham, like planes circling King Kong, over a sex scandal. 

And Tillis, recovering from a case of coronavirus, is submerged in questions again about the public health guidance on masks that he so freely proffers and doesn’t follow himself

I won’t guarantee a winner in this race. But here’s one thing I’m confident of, given what we know today:

This race is bigger than Cunningham. And it’s bigger than Tillis. It won’t be decided by coronavirus or a tabloid sex scandal. The voters will decide this race as if their health care and reproductive rights depend on it. They will vote as if they are choosing the next generation of judges, as if Tillis’ integral role in this scorched decade of NC politics matters. And they will vote, of course, as if democracy itself is in question. 

There’s no need for hyperbole anymore. We are living hyperbole. 

Either voters are fine with what the GOP and Tillis and his inflammatory ally, President Donald Trump, have wrought, or they’re not. I suspect the latter.

The Old Rules Don’t Apply

In normal circumstances, Cal Cunningham would be felled by an election-year revelation that he was unfaithful to his wife. But the old rules don’t apply in 2020. His GOP opponent is inextricably tangled with a president who fantasizes about autocracy. 

The undecideds in this race aren’t tortured over Cunningham’s unfaithfulness to his wife. Thom Tillis has been unfaithful to North Carolina.

Sure, there are new questions about Cunningham after this scandal. But whoever said you take the devil you know over the devil you don’t didn’t endure the last decade of Thom Tillis. 

And sure, the Democrat hurt his family and his staff and his most devoted followers with this news. But if elected again, Tillis will hurt literally millions of North Carolinians. 

Tillis’ blind devotion to a Trump appointee to the US Supreme Court could cost the women of this state the right to a legal abortion, even though the vast majority of North Carolinians support reproductive rights

It might also cost millions of North Carolinians their access to health insurance, or insurance that won’t discriminate against them because of a pre-existing medical condition, one of the Affordable Care Act’s most popular components. 

Tillis has claimed it is not his intent to take health care from North Carolinians, but lawmakers tend to tell you who they are with their votes. And Tillis, who’s voted seven times to dismantle the ACA without a viable plan for replacing it, has told us very loudly who he is:

  • After taking over as state House speaker in 2011, he oversaw a brazenly partisan gerrymandering of NC’s congressional and state legislative districts, a gerrymandering so extreme it left some questioning the state’s claim to representative democracy. NC Democrats deserve their share of blame for their partisan gerrymanders in the decades before, but Tillis’ GOP dreamed of an election-proof majority and, without the courts’ intervention, arguably could have made it so.
  • Tillis spearheaded a massive election reform bill in 2013 that saw his staffers poring over  Democrats’ voting habits, particularly the habits of Black voters, before cutting early voting, Sunday voting, and imposing an unnecessary photo ID requirement. Anyone who wonders whether Tillis chafes at President Trump’s refusal to accept an election he doesn’t win has not been following Tillis’ career. Tillis’ most long-lasting accomplishment in the state legislature, other than a top-down overhaul of taxes that gutted state revenues, was to overhaul elections in such a way as to make his party nearly immune to elections. Trump is a novice at undermining democracy; Tillis did it first and did it better.
  • As the state House speaker, he blocked a federally-funded expansion of Medicaid benefits that would have improved access to health care for a half-million in the state and brought billions into the economy, even as moderate and conservative Republicans alike, including Vice President Mike Pence when he was governor of Indiana, realized the madness of such obstinance. Tillis took partisanship over practicality to its fullest extremes. And he did so with the knowledge that, at its outset, the federal government would pay 100% of that expansion. In other words, he rejected an expansion of health insurance benefits that North Carolinians had already paid for through their federal taxes. It’s akin to blockading your own harbor, starving out your own people. In the midst of a pandemic, Tillis’ party continues to block expansion, even with the number of uninsured North Carolinians soaring and the federal government still paying 93% of the bill. Health care is complicated, but this is simple: A high number of uninsured people is bad for the system. It’s bad for the economy. It’s bad for hospitals and medical providers forced to absorb greater costs. And, most importantly, it’s bad for people.
  • Under Tillis’ leadership, North Carolina lawmakers imposed some of the most brutal public education cuts in the nation. Educators began marching on Raleigh in 2018 over lagging pay, mediocre funding, and a booming, unregulated school choice sector that deeply destabilized public school systems, but this movement was planted in 2013 by a Tillis-led legislature’s gouging cuts. There might be a smattering of parents and students who’ve profited from a boom of private schools and charters, but most in this state are attending public schools that are weaker today than they were before Tillis took over the state legislature. 
  • Tillis had already left for DC by the time state lawmakers approved the infamous House Bill 2, which packed in anti-LGBTQ provisions like clowns in a clown car. But Tillis aided and abetted the most extreme elements of his party before that by calling a referendum on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The courts struck it down. And the country has moved miles on LGBTQ equality since then, but that’s no excuse. He put North Carolinians’ civil rights to a vote. 

This list is not exhaustive, even if it is exhausting. But it speaks to what North Carolinians might be feeling this fall as we go to the polls. Tillis and his Republican colleagues would have us think about the last 30 days of the election. But how could we forget the last decade? 

The optimism of those heady days in 2011 are gone, when Republicans and Tillis promised something new in North Carolina. Tillis’ sheen is gone too.

“North Carolinians are looking for somebody who is going to take on the monumental challenges in front of us,” Cunningham said last week of this election. That’s an understatement. 

North Carolinians are looking for someone to put the past, and Tillis, behind us.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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