In the crowded North Carolina primary race for the Senate nomination Tuesday, a candidate will need to clear 40 percent of the votes to avoid a runoff. The candidate who is the most likely to achieve this is North Carolina’s General Assembly Speaker Thom Tillis — the nominee chosen by many prominent Republicans against Tea Party candidates Greg Brannon, Mike Harris, Bill Flynn, and Heather Grant. Named the “establishment” GOP candidate, Tillis has earned endorsements from Mitt Romney, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the Chamber of Commerce. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the National Rifle Association have also weighed in the race in Tillis’ favor.
Brannon on the other hand has attracted support from Tea Party icons Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and FreedomWorks, leading many pundits to call the race a test of the establishment GOP’s strength against the Tea Party. Paul even claimed the North Carolina race revealed an internal “war” between the two factions of the Republican Party. “Tillis is the prototype of an establishment candidate,” the National Journal argued recently. “He is consistently on message, never straying into dangerous waters. In short, Tillis, with his pragmatic streak and country-club credentials, represents just about everything Tea Partiers rose up to oppose.”
But that view of Tillis’ record ignores that he has been a major player in passing a slew of radical policies since the GOP took control of the North Carolina legislature three years ago. Tillis has targeted welfare benefits, passed tax cuts for the rich, tried to eliminate the Department of Education, denied climate change, and more — showing how an “establishment” GOP candidate is now synonymous with policies the average voter would find extreme.
Minimum wage: Tillis argued the minimum wage is an “artificial threshold.” “I have serious concerns with the discussion around minimum wage because it drives up costs and it could harm jobs,” Tillis told the Raleigh News & Observer. “Obviously we want people to be paid a wage that could help make ends meet, but when you increase artificially the cost of labor to do a job, then often times those jobs will just go away.”
Climate change: Tillis answered a curt “no” when asked if climate change is a fact at a Republican primary debate, in complete agreement with his Tea Party opponents. In fact, under Tillis’ leadership, the legislature passed a bill that bans state officials from using sea level rise predictions in desigining rules of coastal development.
Voter ID: Tillis pushed and passed a photo ID requirement for North Carolina voters, and said that so-called voter fraud is “not the primary reason for doing this.” “We call this restoring confidence in government,” Tillis said. “There are a lot of people who are just concerned with the potential risk of fraud.” However, there is no evidence of fraud in North Carolina. But voter ID is well-documented to reduce turnout among minorities and low-income voters.
Drug tests for poor people: Tillis thinks the government must “divide and conquer” welfare benefits by drug-testing low-income people receiving benefits. His logic sounds not all that different from Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent remarks. “[W]e need those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government and say at some point you’re on your own. We may end up taking care of those babies, but we’re not going to take care of you.”
Unemployment insurance: Tillis, along with the rest of the Republican field, said he would have voted against extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed when Congress let them expire at the end of 2013.
Same-sex marriage ban: In 2011, the newly elected Republican majority under Tillis’ leadership passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Although a supporter of the ban, Tillis still speculated that the amendment might be overturned in 20 years. It faces legal challenges even sooner than that, since religious leaders have recently taken on the law in a federal lawsuit.
Abortion restrictions: Tillis thinks states have the right to ban contraceptives and supports banning most abortions after 20 weeks. Tillis pushed a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound bill in 2012 for women seeking abortions, as well as other restrictions on abortion providers which Planned Parenthood argued “could dramatically restrict the number of health centers that provide abortion in North Carolina.”
The efforts to paint Tillis as “moderate” dovetails with the national Republican Party’s listing toward the right. A ThinkProgress analysis found that Republicans considered moderate in today’s Congress are far more conservative than they were before 2008.