Poor Thom Tillis. Every sorry move the N.C. General Assembly made in the last three years to enrage the progressive-minded, Tillis, the House speaker, was right there calling the tune. Tax cuts for the wealthy. Banning Medicaid expansion for the poor. Slashing unemployment benefits for those who've lost jobs. Obstructing voting rights and reproductive rights.
No wonder Rep. Paul (Skip) Stam, R-Wake, a top Tillis lieutenant and right-wing Republican of long standing, hails a "decided turn toward sound conservative government" and credits Tillis as its "chief architect."
Endorsing Tillis last week in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, Stam derided Tillis' critics. "Those who attack him for lack of conservative credentials are disconnected from reality," Stam complained.
Maybe. Or maybe Stam is disconnected from the Republican electorate. Because, with just a week to go until early voting begins in the May 6 primary, Tillis is in deep trouble in his quest to unseat Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-term Democrat.
Tillis needs 40 percent of the primary vote to avoid a runoff of the top two finishers. But polls show him with half that much against seven little-known opponents—and despite the millions lavished on Tillis by Republican contributors.
What's the problem? It's the millions lavished on Tillis by Republican contributors. Instead of cloaking him with inevitability, the big-bucks campaign for Tillis has soaked him in sleaze.
A "culture of corruption" surrounds Tillis and makes him unelectable, says Dr. Greg Brannon, the Cary obstetrician and tea party favorite who runs second to Tillis in most polls.
Tillis ignores Brannon, who has ethical issues of his own. (After a civil trial in February, a jury found that Brannon misled investors about a technology start-up and ordered him to repay $454,631.)
But Tillis didn't ignore the Rev. Mark Harris, an evangelical Baptist preacher from Charlotte who's in third place and gaining. When Harris attacked, Tillis sent Harris an email whining about it.
To which Harris responded: "In all honesty, Thom, you have managed to accumulate a list of actions that at the very least show terribly poor judgment, and at the worst, a lack of political character. "
A list that starts with some of the measures Stam touted.
Take the legislation slashing unemployment benefits. Republicans like Tillis and Stam were proud because it helped a little with taxes owed by employers, but mainly because it fit their version of morality: When people are laid off, the Republican line goes, they should get busy and find something else. No loafing around on unemployment.
This principle seemed to escape Tillis last year, however, when two of his aides were forced to resign because they were having affairs with lobbyists. Sympathetic to their "serious family obligations," Tillis approved an extra month's pay for each from taxpayer funds, which meant a $12,500 bonus for his former chief of staff, Charles Thomas, and $6,833 for Amy Hobbs, his policy adviser.
Thomas, who was married, shared an apartment with Tillis when the two were in Raleigh. Hobbs, according to Tillis, was a single mom. Both lobbyists were married.
An affront to family values? Yes, but. "I recognized that their jobs and careers were forever affected by their choices," Tillis said.
At least they had a choice, unlike those thrown out of work by the recession.
Or take the tax cuts the Republicans enacted.
In 2011, Tillis oversaw a $300 million a year giveaway to anyone with a business—from mom-and-pop stores to wealthy lawyers and doctors—by exempting their first $50,000 in profits from the state income tax.
That was bad enough and a big reason why, though the recession is over, school teachers still haven't had a pay raise since 2008–09—and why Republicans, despite being desperate to show (in an election year) that they don't hate teachers, aren't sure they'll be able to eke one out for next year.
But then Tillis and the Republicans made things worse, repealing the 2011 handout, effective with the 2014 tax year, in order to cut the corporate income tax rate. Thus, they replaced a tax cut for people who at least live in North Carolina with a giveaway to big corporations, most of which will spend it somewhere else. The Republicans also cut personal income tax rates to benefit the wealthy for a combined revenue loss of some $500 million a year.
The damage would've been worse except the Republicans imposed sales taxes on movies, utility bills and enough other previously exempt items that, for 80 percent of North Carolinians, according to the nonpartisan N.C. Budget & Tax Center, the GOP "tax cut" is actually a tax hike.
Which is exactly what Hagan's campaign is charging. And why Harris says that if Tillis is nominated, the Democrats "will have a field day with you."
It's also why Tillis has skipped every candidates forum held so far, including two in Wake County last week. His record is just too easy a target. (Tillis is slated to do TV debates on Time Warner Cable and WUNC-TV next week.)
His strategy is to avoid answering critics like Sen. Bob Rucho, a fellow Mecklenburg County Republican and chair of the Senate Finance Committe, who charged last year that Tillis (and Gov. Pat McCrory) were forcing most people's taxes to go up so that special interests could be protected. The same special interests who've poured the big bucks into the Tillis campaign—and the sleaze.
To Tillis's rescue in the closing weeks: The Republican establishment, in the persons of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, Karl Rove and his American Crossroads organization and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which according to the National Journal is about to come out for Tillis.
With the establishment closing ranks behind Tillis, is it any wonder the Republican rank-and-file are checking out the Seven Dwarfs—er, other GOP candidates?
They don't like it when their politicians make the rich richer any more than I do.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sour notes."