More than a decade ago, a push for a mountain bike trail in his hometown of Cornelius led Thom Tillis to politics, first leading him to serve on a park board and then a year later on the town commission.
The Republican is returning to the story of his political roots as he campaigns for the U.S. Senate.
“I’ve only been in office since 2007,” he said after filing his candidacy papers last week. “I served for a small time in the town of Cornelius. I was PTA president eight years ago.”
The effort is designed to portray Tillis as the candidate who can deliver results and push back against his label as the establishment candidate.
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But it also highlights his start in state politics in 2006 when he ousted a conservative lawmaker in a GOP primary – a campaign under renewed scrutiny from some conservative activists, a population key to the primary and one that is skeptical of Tillis.
“He challenged a sitting Republican in the primary,” said Sharon Hudson, a tea party activist now seeking the same seat representing House District 98. “People have not forgotten that.”
Tillis is the lone state lawmaker in a heap of eight Republican contenders vying to challenge Democrat Kay Hagan. And his campaign is backed by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and Republican strategist Karl Rove.
His rivals are running as outsiders and promising to shake the status quo. Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician and first-time candidate with tea party support, hit Tillis this week for “being just another go-along-to-get-along establishment politician.”
To win his legislative seat and launch his fast rise through the ranks, Tillis knocked off two-term Republican state Rep. John Rhodes, once dubbed “legislator of the year” by Americans for Prosperity, a now-prominent tea party organization.
Rhodes made a name for himself as an outspoken critic of then-Democratic House Speaker Jim Black, who was facing questions about campaign finance violations that later sent him to prison. He also blasted then-Republican Speaker Pro Tem Richard Morgan, a toxic name in GOP circles for having cut a power-sharing agreement with Democrats years earlier.
In a recent interview, Morgan recalled his desire to see Rhodes defeated. “I talked to Thom in the early days,” Morgan said, “and offered my encouragement.”
Tillis won 1,805 votes to Rhodes’ 1,061 in a race in which Tillis painted Rhodes as an ineffectual ideologue.
“From that point on I thanked him profusely for getting rid of John Rhodes in the General Assembly, who was just a pain in the butt,” Morgan said.
Morgan, too, lost his 2006 re-election bid in the Republican primary, bested by a well-funded effort from his own party.
Rhodes did not return a message seeking comment.
The Tillis-Rhodes race is seared into the minds of some conservative activists in the Charlotte area.
Christian Hine, the leader of the Charlotte Tea Party, wrote on a blog that Tillis was “elected under false pretenses.”
In an interview, Hine said Tillis’ effort to beat Rhodes helped sow “a level of distrust among conservatives” and the race is much-discussed in the context of the Senate battle.
“In terms of how much you can trust somebody ... to be a strong conservative advocate, you look at the start,” he said. “Then you realize that this guy already has a history of running against good conservatives.”
Carl Mumpower, a former Republican congressional candidate and Asheville city councilman, said it showed Tillis as a “political opportunist.”
“I think the whole affair ... was very distrustful and dishonorable,” he said. “They went after a person who to me was one of the very few persistently principled conservatives in office.”
Tillis’ campaign is aware of the unrest about his political start and dismisses it. Through a spokesman, Tillis said he only met Morgan once and not until 2010.
Morgan “did not recruit Thom, he was not an ally and he was not involved at any level,” Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw said of the 2006 race.
Told of Morgan’s comments, Shaw later added: “Any encouragement that was given was not a factor in the speaker’s mind and certainly doesn’t constitute recruitment.”