Control of the Senate, the prognosticators tell us, could come down to North Carolina. If GOP establishment favorite Thom Tillis clears 40 percent today and avoids a runoff — as seems likely — we’ll be hearing a great deal about how Republicans vanquished destructive elements within the party and emerged with the strongest and most “moderate” opponent against vulnerable Dem Senator Kay Hagan.
So it’s worth pointing out that Tillis comes with vulnerabilities of his own. For one thing, whatever his relative moderation when compared with his primary opponents, he appears to be a diehard 47 percenter.
On Hardball last night, Chris Matthews featured video of Tillis — previously captured by a local North Carolina group — in which Tillis’ 47 percenter-ism was on full display.
In it, Tillis said we have to “divide and conquer” those on public assistance, by getting those who really need it — the sick — to turn on and look down at those who “choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government.” Speaking of that latter category, Tillis added: “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.” Watch:
This video was taken in 2011, but even Tillis himself appeared to understand his remarks were controversial, noting that such views could “get me railroaded out of town.” The Hagan campaign is circulating the video today, but observers who have been paying close attention to the race have known for some time that Tillis, the state House speaker, has a more conservative record than is commonly appreciated, one Dems might utilize to their advantage.
Indeed, the 47 percenter-ism on display in this video didn’t occur in a vacuum. Tillis not only opposed the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, which would have expanded coverage to 500,000 people he would represent; he also boasted in an ad that he was personally responsible for stopping that outcome “cold.” Tillis and North Carolina Republicans also dramatically slashed unemployment benefits, which, in the words of one national observer, turned help for the jobless into a “thinner safety net than it has been in decades.”
Tillis has heaped contempt on those protesting such policies, arguing: “What I see from the folks who are opposing our agenda is whining coming from losers.”
As Ed Kilgore has noted, the real hallmark of 47 percenter-ism is a gut-based appeal that separates the deserving from the undeserving poor, a dichotomy that reveals “the politics of selfishness and self-righteousness that is at the emotional heart of conservative politics at present.”
The “divide and conquer” line seems relevant. As Chris Matthews noted in his commentary on the video: “The goal here politically is to get the sick people to attack the poor people.” A Tillis spokesman didn’t answer my emailed request for clarification of his comments.
Beyond the overt 47 percenter-ism, during the primary Tillis also called the minimum wage hike a “dangerous idea” and even cast doubt on whether we should have a federal minimum wage, another issue where Dems may be able to gain some traction among swing voters, even in a state carried by Mitt Romney. As Manu Raju put it some time ago, summing up the bigger contrast here:
Democrats are struggling to survive in conservative states as they try to combat Obama’s growing unpopularity and antipathy to the health care law they helped enact. But Republicans are at risk of overreaching with a sharply conservative agenda at a time when their elected leaders are shifting further to the right and independent voters are angry at both parties.
There’s no reason to doubt GOP suggestions that Tillis is the strongest challenger to Hagan, who of course has plenty of vulnerabilities of her own. But the general election battle has not been joined, and once it is, Dems may have more to work with in defining Tillis on terms favorable to them than is immediately apparent.