The legislative session that began in May seemed to offer House Speaker Thom Tillis a showcase for his Republican U.S. Senate race, a chance to champion popular issues even at the cost of a few weeks on the campaign trail.
But any plans for smooth going have met resistance not only from Democrats but, more significantly, from fellow Republicans.
The result is a stalemate that has left North Carolina’s budget – along with promised teacher pay raises and new coal ash inspectors – in limbo on the eve of a new fiscal year. It’s also left a session with no immediate end in sight.
“In general, if you’re a nominee for U.S. Senate you want to spend all your time campaigning for the U.S. Senate,” says John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation. “Whether Thom Tillis is the exception that proves the rule has yet to be determined.”
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Two new polls suggest the session has become a drag on Tillis’ campaign against Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.
A survey by the conservative Civitas Institute showed him losing ground since its last poll a month ago. Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found a similar trend. Both polls showed Hagan with a narrow but widening edge.
Perhaps not coincidentally, PPP found continued disaffection with the General Assembly. Only 18 percent of voters approved of its performance, while 54 percent disapproved. “Kay Hagan’s lead over Thom Tillis has tended to grow whenever the legislature is in session,” PPP President Dean Debnam said in a statement.
Tillis attributes any slippage not to the session but to a nonstop barrage of attack ads. Groups such as the Senate Majority PAC, aligned with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have spent more than $7 million attacking him, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Some Republicans wanted Tillis to step down as speaker after winning the Senate nomination in May to focus on his campaign. He says he has no second thoughts about not resigning.
“If anything I have a stronger belief it was the wise thing to do,” he said Friday. “It’s imperative that we have continuity in leadership. Clearly it would be more beneficial to my campaign (not to), but I’ve got a job to do and I’m going to do it.”
Hagan and her allies have leveled a stream of criticism at Tillis. They’ve pressed him not only on his positions but sought to associate him with those of House allies.
When GOP Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County appeared to equate sexual orientation with forms of sexual perversion this week, Tillis told reporters such comments weren’t “helpful.” But Hagan’s campaign accused the speaker of dodging the issue.
Criticism also has come from Republicans inside the legislature, where the party holds veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
The Senate and House remain divided on several issues including the budget, where fundamental disputes over Medicaid and teacher pay appear far from resolution.
Senate Republicans ridiculed the initial House budget, which used discredited lottery projections to help fund teacher pay raises. And when Tillis and his allies broke out teacher pay into a new spending plan, Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca dismissed it as the “latest budget gimmick.”
Tillis said such such criticism is part of the tension that exists between the bodies regardless of the party in charge.
“It’s just part of the process,” he said. “Sometimes I think it’s unfortunate. They’re operating the way they have in the past. It’s just a natural part of the give-and-take negotiating process.”
But some GOP senators harbor lingering acrimony over previous battles. Others suggest Tillis’ Senate campaign has exacerbated tensions.
“It’s obvious the speaker’s been traveling a lot and we need his leadership,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Republican from Waxhaw. “Do I think the process would have moved along more smoothly had he been here more? Absolutely.”
Tillis has skipped at least part of several legislative days, including Wednesday’s entire session and much of Thursday’s. Tillis said he was at off-site business meetings and a fundraiser.
Tucker and other Senate Republicans also believe Tillis has orchestrated a “painless” budget, without the hard cuts they included in theirs. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden called the most recent House spending plan unbalanced and unsustainable.
Moving to the center
Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist and blogger, believes the House budget is designed to boost Tillis’ Senate bid by raising teacher pay while avoiding Senate cuts in areas such as teacher assistants.
“He’s trying to move everything to the center,” Mills said. “While that may not be sound fiscal policy it’s smart politics.”
Carter Wrenn, a GOP strategist who ran campaigns for the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, said Tillis could benefit by “head-butting” the Senate.
“If he’s against doing away with teacher aides and the Senate is for it, that could probably help him,” Wrenn said. “The Senate has such a blunderbuss approach to things that standing up to them could make him look reasonable.”
The Senate run has sometimes left Tillis in some awkward positions.
At Charlotte’s City Club Friday, he attended a fundraiser headlined by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush has been an outspoken supporter of Common Core educational standards, which the House voted to repeal. Tillis supports repeal.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration is preparing for the possibility there will be no budget amendment when the new fiscal year starts Tuesday. The longer the state goes without a budget update, the more it could hurt Tillis, who mocked Senate Majority Leader Reid when the U.S. Senate failed to pass a budget.
Except for cutting into his time on the trail, Tillis downplays the impact of the session on his Senate race.
“From a time standpoint, it’s a negative,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s had any meaningful impact on where I am in polls, simply because most people don’t follow the legislature. I don’t think it’s part of the daily lives of most North Carolinians.”
John Frank of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.