Like many Republican voters, Wayne and Lynn Dahnke are torn when it comes to the U.S. Senate primary.
They align with Greg Brannon’s strong conservative politics. But they consider Thom Tillis the stronger candidate against Democrat Kay Hagan.
“Thom Tillis is a moderate, in my opinion. Brannon is more conservative,” said Wayne Dahnke, a 68-year-old real estate appraiser. Next to him at a GOP event in Sanford near their home, his wife nodded in agreement. But he added, “I’m leaning toward Tillis because he’s more likely to beat Hagan.”
How voters like the Dahnkes weigh the candidates ahead of Tuesday’s vote speaks to a key dynamic in the election – and most notably, the tension at the center of Tillis’ candidacy. Even as he touts himself on the campaign trail as the “leader of the conservative revolution” in Raleigh, as he did last week at the 2nd Congressional District convention in Sanford, Tillis faces skepticism from his own party about his ideological convictions.
His rivals, Brannon and Mark Harris, suggest Tillis is shifting his positions to cater to a partisan primary audience, whether on the federal health care law or Common Core. And they decry him as a come-lately advocate for issues they’ve long championed, whether opposition to marriage for same-sex couples or support for abortion restrictions.
Their criticism echoes that of some conservative lawmakers about Tillis’ leadership in the House. Former GOP Rep. Mark Hilton of Conover knocked the 2012 legislative session as “not a year conservative politics were championed.” Other outspoken Republicans such as Rep. Robert Brawley of Mooresville and Larry Pittman of Concord suggested in 2013 that Tillis held back measures he considered too partisan or controversial, sparking contentious moments during the session.
Rep. David Lewis, a committee chairman and Tillis ally, said the speaker is pragmatic. “I think Speaker Tillis kept his eye focused on the economy and jobs,” he said. “And some of the other issues that may have been important but not in keeping with his focus ... got left behind.”
What’s visible, said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political expert, is the fracture within the Republican Party, a difficult proposition Tillis confronted as he managed a supermajority with 77 members.
“It’s how the Republican Party is structured,” Bitzer said. “It’s almost, for lack of a better term, a kabuki dance. You have to have one mask on, but that one mask can’t be so dominant or extreme that you scare off the entire audience.”
With his campaign’s recent emphasis on social conservative issues, Republican strategist Carter Wrenn said Tillis is just shifting the emphasis. “If you look at his record, there are conservative things and things not so conservative,” he said. “I think he has put a spotlight on what’s conservative.”
Tillis disputes any evolution in his political moorings. He tries to strike a balance, highlighting his efforts to cut billions in taxes and dozens of regulations and his support for the constitutional ban on gay marriage and tougher abortion restrictions.
“It’s disingenuous to say I’m changing my position because these are positions I have taken formally in votes over the last three years,” he said in an interview after the Sanford event Saturday.
Questioning his stance
But his rivals focus on a handful of issues where his stance now doesn’t match his record. The main three:
• On the federal health care law, the House under Tillis’ leadership advanced HB 115 in 2011 to create a state-based insurance exchange as a way to “protect state-based authority.” The effort died in the Senate, and two years later, lawmakers approved a measure to reject any ties to “Obamacare.”
• On Common Core, Tillis said recently in a Senate debate that he supports a repeal of the national education standards, which are loathed by some conservatives who consider them an intrusion into local decision-making. But in 2011, the House approved Senate Bill 479 to direct the state to participate in Common Core.
• On renewable energy standards, as a freshman legislator, Tillis voted with Democrats in 2007 to support Senate Bill 3, which required at least 12.5 percent of retail power sales by electric utilities come from renewables and energy efficiency programs by 2021. Republican efforts to repeal these standards died in 2013. But amid the campaign, Tillis said he supports their repeal.
If anything, Tillis said, these issues reflect the nature of lawmaking. “That’s the difference between someone experienced who actually understands the legislative process and someone who is maybe speaking before they think about the consequences and how they would do it in an orderly fashion,” he said.
But it left questions in Lynn Dahnke’s mind. “I want him to explain to me the broader conversation about Obamacare and state exchanges,” she said.
She didn’t get the chance to talk to him at the GOP event. But like her husband, she said she is leaning in Tillis’ direction because he can win in November.