Thom Tillis is not someone who particularly riles up voters on either side of the aisle. When the North Carolina Senator spoke at a Republican rally in Fayetteville 2019, he was met with boos for being insufficiently conservative.
Conversely, while his 2014 race against incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan was the most expensive race in history at the time, his Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham raised far less than Amy McGrath or Jamie Harrison in their 2020 suicide missions against Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. This, despite the fact that by all usual metrics Cunningham had a better chance of beating Tillis (whether Cunningham’s farcical sex scandal cost him the race is a question for debate). Nevertheless, Tillis squeaked out a victory both times, and is now set to become North Carolina’s senior Senator when Richard Burr retires at the end of this year.
These days, it appears Tillis is mostly known for using his entire operation to end the career of the state’s delinquent freshman Republican Representative Madison Cawthorn. He’s endorsed Chuck Edwards, a state Senator, in his primary challenge against Cawthorn in North Carolina’s 11th district that will happen on Tuesday. Tillis’s super PAC has even launched a $300,000 ad campaign ripping the beleaguered Congressman, who has come under a heavy microscope for his multiple run-ins with the law.
Your reporter has actually known Tillis for a little under a decade. I even covered the Senator’s rise while a student reporter at the University of North Carolina – and if you want to know why Tillis has taken such offense at Cawthorn’s behavior, it’s because Cawthorn has denigrated everything Tillis built.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democrat to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter. At the state level, the late Hagan won her Senate seat; Beverly Perdue won the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. This was the same year neighboring Virginia began its trajectory to become a Democratic stronghold for a decade.
In response, Tillis led the charge and recruited candidates to help Republicans win a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since 1898. In 2012, his fellow Charlotte-area Republican Pat McCrory won the governorship. As Speaker, Tillis shepherded a wishlist of conservative priorities: he introduced a massive tax cut; blocked Medicaid expansion; brought in one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws (one that the Supreme Court later struck down for targeting Black voters with an “almost surgical precision”); and significantly slashed unemployment insurance.
Nevertheless, Tillis was never seen as sufficiently conservative and he faced a primary challenge when he ran for Senate in 2014. Those accusations of being a RINO still likely sting, and are probably why accusations from Cawthorn that he’s “not conservative enough” hit him personally. Tillis led North Carolina’s GOP to the promised land when it was locked out of total power for more than a century. To be called a RINO after that must feel particularly unfair. Cawthorn also infuriated Tillis when he criticized Tillis for voting for the infrastructure bill and then touted expanding broadband to western North Carolina.
Cawthorn also encroached on Tillis’s turf when he tried to switch districts in the Charlotte area in a congressional district that was meant for his successor as House Speaker Tim Moore and called Moore “another establishment, go-along-to-get-along Republican”. It should be noted Moore was Speaker when North Carolina passed legislation that restricted which public restrooms transgender people could use. Tillis likely took that as a personal affront.
Tillis’s fight is a mix of trying to put a young man in his place, avenging the friends Cawthorn has crossed, and punishing the Congressman for risking the political victories he worked so hard to achieve. To borrow from another North Carolinian who happens to own Charlotte’s basketball team: “It became personal with me”.
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