North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) on Tuesday won the right to face Sen. Kay Hagan (D) in November. With 45 percent of precincts reporting, the Associated Press called the race for Tillis, who received nearly 46 percent of the vote against two more conservative rivals.
Tillis is one of the GOP’s best hopes for winning back a Democratic-held Senate seat. And Tillis’s fate is intricately tied to the Republican push to take back the Senate: There aren’t many plausible scenarios in which Republicans pick up the six seats necessary to win back the Senate that don’t include North Carolina.
Tillis is well-known in Raleigh, where he’s one of a triumvirate of Republican leaders who virtually run the state. But he’s less known in the rest of North Carolina. So here are 13 facts about the man who could hold the key to the Senate for Republicans:
1. Tillis is only the second Republican to serve as House speaker since the turn of the 20th century. Republicans swept to power in the 2010 election cycle, a terrible year for North Carolina Democrats. Since the Civil War, only five Republicans had served as sole speaker of the House, and three of them served prior to 1900. The GOP held the state House for two terms, between 1995 and 1998, but that was it until Tillis took the gavel in 2011.
2. Even though Republicans control both the executive branch and the legislature, Tillis frequently found himself playing the role of mediator between two other powerful Republicans. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) and state Senate President Phil Berger (R) don’t get along terribly well; during McCrory’s first year in office, Tillis was often the go-between, on issues like tax reform and the state’s controversial elections bill, where McCrory and Berger had policy differences.
3. He sends messages with lollipops. Tillis would keep a mug full of Dum Dum lollipops on his desk. If he thought an idea was, well, less than brilliant, he would reward its author with a sweet treat that sent a less-than-subtle message.
4. Expect to hear a lot about the agenda Tillis shepherded. Democrats point to the legislature’s dismal approval ratings and measures on things like abortion restrictions, cuts to education budgets and the voting reform law that Tillis helped pass. They believe they can make Tillis the face of an extreme agenda. Republicans, on the other hand, will make the case that Tillis’s accomplishments in Raleigh, especially cutting taxes, stand in contrast to Hagan’s tenure in Washington, where gridlock has ruled.
5. Tillis likes the outdoors. He’s an avid water skier and mountain biker.
6. He likes dogs. Tillis has named his pets Reagan, Abe and — the newest addition to the family — Ike.
7. He moved around a lot. Thomas Tillis Sr., the speaker’s father, was a boat draftsman, home repairman and general handyman, which meant the family moved around a lot. The younger Tillis attended a different elementary school every year, bouncing from Jacksonville, Fla., to New Orleans to Antioch, Tenn., where he lived in what he called a trailer park. He entered the Air Force after high school, but a car crash before he reported for duty left him too badly injured to serve. He was honorably discharged, then went on to a career in information technology. He bounced around to Boston, Atlanta and the Virginia suburbs of Washington.
8. But he found a home north of Charlotte. Tillis and his family, wife Susan and children Lindsay and Ryan, settled in North Mecklenburg in 1998.
9. Tillis didn’t get his college degree until age 37. In 1996, he became a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting giant. The next year, he completed his college degree online through a distance learning program with University of Maryland University College. (Democrats attacked Tillis for biographies that inaccurately claimed he earned a degree at University of Maryland at College Park, UMD’s flagship campus. Tillis’s campaign blamed staffers who confused the two schools and corrected the online biographies. Now, his state House biography includes a link to UMUC’s Web site.)
10. He wants to be NRSC chairman. Tillis told National Journal in a recent interview that he would love to chair the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the body tasked with electing Republican senators.
11. Tillis doesn’t always wait his turn. The NRSC’s first priority is to defend incumbents. Tillis beat an incumbent state legislator in 2006 to earn his seat in Raleigh. He quit IBM, where he had moved from PWC, to focus on his political career in 2009.
12. He was the favorite of the GOP establishment. Tillis benefited from millions of dollars in spending from supportive outside groups, including American Crossroads, which put in about $1.1 million on his behalf, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent more than $750,000 on television ads. The NRSC never formally endorsed him, but they made clear where they stood in the primary.
13. His campaign team is led by Republican consultants Paul Shumaker and Brad Todd. Todd is a partner in the Alexandria, Va.-based OnMessage Inc.; he’s spent several cycles managing independent expenditures for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Shumaker is a veteran North Carolina strategist who worked for Sen. Richard Burr (R). Public Opinion Strategies pollster Glen Bolger is handling the survey research.