We have less than two months until the 2020 election, and North Carolina could play a pivotal role in what happens on a national scale. The race for president will draw a lot of focus until then. But what happens in the senate race for the seat occupied by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) could have national implications as well.
The Democrats need to pick up either three or four seats to become the majority party in the Senate, according to 270toWin.
Keep those stakes in mind. And now, let’s take a look at Tillis, his record, his views, and hear from his detractors.
Where is Tillis on the Political Spectrum?
Tillis ranks among the most conservative members of the Senate, according to GovTrack’s ideology-leadership chart.
The ideology rating draws from Tillis’ patterns of sponsoring and co-sponsoring proposed legislation. The leadership rating is based on which legislators co-sponsor bills and on the algorithm used by Google to rank search results. According to his record, large portion of the bills Tillis sponsors deal with finance (29%) and the armed forces and national security (20%), according to GovTrack.
GovTrack places Tillis to the right of Sen. Richard Burr, a U.S. senator from North Carolina, on its ideology spectrum but below Burr on the leadership spectrum. Only 15 senators are below Tillis on GovTrack’s leadership scale. That list includes Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who ran for president in 2016 and again in 2020.
The program rates only 12 senators more conservative than Tillis. GovTrack rates Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) as the most conservative member of the Senate. As context, the conservative groups Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works have given Tillis high marks during his term in the Senate, according to GovTrack.
Americans for Prosperity is the conservative-libertarian advocacy group tied to billionaires Charles Koch and David Koch. FreedomWorks reports having more than 6 million members who share a “desire for less government, lower taxes, and more economic freedom.”
Both conservative groups rate Tillis highly on his voting record. He has a 94% rating from Americans For Prosperity and an 80% rating from FreedomWorks.
Looking at Tillis’ Record with the Trump Administration
Writing about a congressman’s or senator’s voting record in 2020 ultimately means including their voting record as it relates to President Donald Trump and his administration.
According to FiveThirtyEight, 93.4% of Tillis’ votes have been in line with Trump’s policy views. While the senator has mostly voted in-step with the president, he has opposed Trump eight times over the past three-and-a-half years.
The first was a sanction package against Russia, and the second was a sanction package against Russia, North Korea and Iran. Tillis supported both actions; Trump opposed them.
Tillis went against Trump again in February 2019 when he disapproved of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Syria. The senator voted in favor of the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, but Trump withdrew troops from Syria in October 2019. Critics of that withdrawal explained that the move left Kurdish fighters — longtime U.S. allies in the region — vulnerable to attack from Turkish and Islamic State forces.
Despite his differing stances on military strategy, Tillis did support both of Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court: Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
What About Before Tillis Reached the U.S. Senate?
Tillis had a meteoric rise to the national stage. He was elected to the Cornelius Board of Commissioners in 2003 and was elected to the N.C. General Assembly in 2007. After just two terms in the state’s House of Representatives, he became the Speaker of the House in 2011, following the wave of Tea Party members elected to the General Assembly in 2010. Tillis served as Speaker when gerrymandering in the state started becoming a major problem.
He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014, two years before the 2016 congressional elections in the state became an absolute mess. Three federal judges delayed that year’s primary elections after determining race was a major factor in how the state legislature drew the districts.
Tuesdays with Tillis: Weekly Protests from His Opponents
Activist Karen Ziegler, while studying the backgrounds of Trump’s cabinet in early 2017, felt she had to become involved. Now, Ziegler is a co-founder and lead organizer for Tuesdays with Tillis. The group’s website explains that the movement is “a progressive grassroots community that protests peacefully every Tuesday” in Raleigh, outside of the Terry Sanford Federal Building (home to Tillis’ North Carolina office).
Tuesdays with Tillis started in 2017 by visiting the senator’s office weekly. Ziegler said members signed the guest book to let Tillis know they had been there, and to inform him of any complaints his North Carolina constituents had.
Those visits inside the office stopped after a few months, when group members could no longer enter the office. Ziegler said letters from group members are no longer accepted by Tillis’ staff. She voiced frustration with the senator and his office. “He has so much contempt for the people of North Carolina,” Ziegler said. “It’s just sickening.”
Not being able to visit Tillis’ office, however, didn’t stop group members. Ziegler said they continued meeting outside the building. They’ve also continued watching Tillis’ voting record.
Members of Tuesdays with Tillis also discuss hot political topics during their weekly meetings. Past discussions focused on family separation at the border and Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Ziegler said the group studied the 448-page Mueller Report about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election. “A lot of us have been more and more skeptical about what is going on with Tillis and with politics in general,” she said.
When everything shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, members started meeting at 11:15 a.m. each Tuesday via Zoom. Tuesday with Tillis’ virtual meeting Sept. 8 will mark its 189th consecutive week of meeting.
Why Learn More? Tillis Faces a Contested Senate Race.
The race between Tillis and Democrat challenger Cal Cunningham, a native of Lexington, is tight. The two candidates sit tied at 44% in a recent survey of 1,101 likely voters conducted by the East Carolina University Center for Survey Research.
In June, The Hill reported that Americans For Prosperity spent more than $1 million on ads for four Senate races. Tillis received some of that money for his senate race. Other recipients included Sens. John Cornryn (R-Texas), Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.).
On the other hand, Cunningham and his campaign have received his own funds. VoteVets super PAC devoted $2.7 million to support Cunningham in his race against Tillis, according to a RollCall story from Sept. 1.
Given that Tillis and Cunningham will run a tight senate race in our state, it can help for us to learn more about each man. Election misinformation will likely abound ahead of November. Make sure you check whatever circulates about these candidates (read the news articles and the candidates’ own websites, along with the headlines that appear on social media). Political education matters a lot for November, but so does digital skepticism. What else can you teach yourself ahead of the polls?