Legislative session will matter in race for Hagan’s Senate seat

September 5, 2013

RALEIGH, N.C. — As the last of his state representatives filed out the door on Wednesday, after adjourning a brief special session to overturn two vetoes, an impeccably coiffed man in a pinstriped suit and French cuffs named Thom Tillis sat on a leather couch in his corner office in the building where the legislature meets and reflected on the record that he and his Republican majority have compiled.

A few blocks away, at a Colonial Revival mansion that houses the North Carolina Democratic Party, strategists plotting against Tillis were doing the same thing.

In his third year as speaker of the North Carolina state House, Tillis oversaw passage of a major overhaul of the Tarheel State’s tax code, a significant rewrite of the state’s election laws, new restrictions on abortion legislation tied to a bill relating to motorcycle safety, and a measure that will dramatically reshuffle the state’s highway funding priorities. Aside from redistricting measures implemented before the 2012 elections, which effectively solidified Republican control over the state legislature and the bulk of North Carolina’s congressional districts, Tillis’s Republicans have accomplished more of their agenda in 2013 than they had in the previous two years since taking over control of the state House in 2011.

But not without a political cost. As his party advanced many of the more controversial proposals this year, Tillis watched the legislature’s approval rating drop, while a mishmash of civil rights leaders, abortion rights advocates and labor union supporters formed weekly protests outside the legislative building. Some weeks, more than 1,000 people would show up to protest; one Democrat said it was his party’s version of the tea party.

Now, as Tillis begins laying the groundwork for a bid against U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, he finds himself with a record of accomplishments to run on — but a record that much of the state isn’t happy about. Control of Hagan’s seat, and perhaps control of the entire Senate, may hinge on how voters judge the actions of their state representatives in Raleigh.

To Tillis, the story he can tell after this year’s legislative session is a positive one.

“If you look at the agenda focused on business, if you look at the agenda focused on simplifying the tax code and reducing the tax burden, simplifying the regulatory process and reducing the regulatory burden, thematically that’s what we need in Washington,” he said in an interview in his office Wednesday. “Those bills, getting the budget done, putting money in the bottom line so we’re in a much better position to react to any economic fluctuations, maybe even be in a position to add funding to areas like education and health and human services, that’s three years in a row that we’ve done that.”

He picked up a brochure the state Farm Bureau had produced to tout their legislative accomplishments, promotional material the agricultural community had never before produced. The farmers were happy, Tillis said, because “they generally ended sessions with more taxes, more regulations and less certainty.” This year, he went on, “we ended the session with fewer taxes, fewer regulations and more certainty.”

Tillis is by no means the only actor in the North Carolina state legislature. He must work closely with state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a conservative who quizzes new hires on Austrian economics, and Gov. Pat McCrory, a business-centric former mayor of Charlotte who frequently found himself rushing to catch up with the state legislature.

And a rash of Republican retirements, plus a strong year at the ballot box in 2012, means Tillis had to contend with a larger-than-normal class of freshmen lawmakers, intent on making their mark on state politics and sometimes causing Tillis headaches in the process. One legislative observer said that the tea party wave that swept the country after big Republican wins in 2010 landed in North Carolina only after 2012, when McCrory won the governor’s mansion.

Tillis, a former PriceWaterhouseCoopers partner and management consultant who quit his job at IBM to focus on politics, is a careful man. At one point during the interview, he said Hagan had won not on the strength of her own campaign, but because of the “weakness” of her opponent, then-senator Elizabeth Dole. Tillis quickly caught himself: “I shouldn’t say weakness. I should say vulnerabilities. There were vulnerabilities there.”

But the record of Tillis’s tenure as speaker won’t be entirely of his own choosing. The elections bill, which would require a voter to show identification at the polls and would cut some early voting days, and which inflamed Democrats in North Carolina and around the country, was a product of the state Senate, rather than the House. The tax reform proposal also came out of the Senate. A measure to ban Islamic sharia law from state courts came from four House members, including three serving their first full terms in office.

Nonetheless, Tillis said he will contrast his three years leading the Republican majority with Hagan’s time in office — both in Raleigh, where she served as a co-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and in Washington.

“There’s a variety of areas for us to compare and contrast our records, and I think that will even get to some of the senator’s tenure as a legislator. In fact, a lot of what we’ve done over the last three years is undoing what she’d done as a legislator,” Tillis said. “A lot of times, these races wouldn’t necessarily go back to that, but I think it’s more of a pattern of behavior the senator has continued in Washington.”

“It’s consistent with tax increases that were implemented under her watch, regulatory expansion that was implemented under her watch, thematically consistent with what she’s done in Washington, and we’ll be weaving those together as part of the campaign,” he added.

Democrats couldn’t be happier to talk about the legislature. President Obama isn’t popular in the state, and the national atmospherics of a president’s second midterm usually favor the party out of power. So Democratic strategists see the Republican legislature’s moves as an almost welcome diversion, an overreach that risks alienating the growing number of unaffiliated voters in a swing state where Democrats still hold six of the 10 statewide elected positions.

“I’m glad Thom Tillis thinks his record deserves a public airing. So do we,” said Ben Ray, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party dispatched to the state to help get Hagan reelected. Ray pointed to 70,000 North Carolinians whose unemployment insurance will soon run out, and the half a million he said would be impacted by the legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. “Kay Hagan’s got a strong record from her time in the state legislature, and we look forward to contrasting the two.”

Tillis isn’t the only Republican in the race. Berger, the Senate president, said in an interview that he hasn’t ruled out his own bid for the seat, though North Carolina Republicans don’t believe he’s likely to run. Mark Harris, the pastor at Charlotte’s First Baptist Church and head of the state’s Southern Baptist Convention, is likely to run for the seat, while Greg Brannon, a little-known physician, is traveling the state stopping at tea party rallies. Both Harris and Brannon will try to portray themselves as more conservative than Tillis.

The race, in a closely divided state that broke away from Obama by only a small margin in 2012, will be one of the more expensive Senate contests in the country next year. In 2008, Hagan spent $8.5 million to defeat Republican Dole. Dole spent $19.5 million, while outside groups dumped another $26 million into the race. Tillis said he would have to raise $10 million from North Carolinians alone, and millions more from out of state; as of the end of June, Hagan reported more than $4.1 million in the bank.

Both sides will race to identify their supporters and get them out to the polls. Since 1994, turnout in midterm elections has lagged badly behind turnout in presidential years. After 2008, when 70 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls, just 44 percent turned out in the 2010 midterms — and that was an increase over the 2006 midterms, when only 37 percent of those who had signed up to vote showed up.

Exactly which voters turn out makes the difference between winning and losing. In 2006, when Democrats were motivated by anger toward President George W. Bush, their party won seven of North Carolina’s 13 House seats, knocking off Republican Rep. Charles Taylor, who represented a district in the state’s western hills. In 2010, when Republicans and the tea party were moved by anger at  Obama, the GOP ousted Rep. Bob Etheridge, taking back an 8-5 majority.

“It’s the only swing state that performed in favor of Republicans, which is why I think it will get so much attention in 2016,” Tillis said Wednesday.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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