Politics & Government

Tea party activists remain wary of Thom Tillis in US Senate race

Thom Tillis
Thom Tillis dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Tea Party champion Rand Paul will campaign alongside Thom Tillis in Raleigh Wednesday morning, trying to shore up a base that could threaten North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate hopeful.

Entering the final month of his race against Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, Tillis faces lingering resistance from libertarian and tea party conservatives.

Some plan to vote for him reluctantly. Others won’t vote for him at all.

“There is no way we could even remotely get behind him,” said Jane Billello, who chairs the Asheville Tea Party. “We would have to abandon and betray everything we believe in. And it’s not going to happen.”

North Carolina could help determine control of the Senate, where Republicans need a net gain of six seats for a majority. Hagan holds a 3.5-point edge over Tillis in Real Clear Politics’ average of recent polls.

A close race could give groups like the tea party outsized influence.

“It’s the difference between 49.9 (percent) and 50.1,” said Duke University political scientist John Aldrich. “It’s very likely their decision that tips it one way or the other.”

Tillis won 47 percent of the vote in May’s GOP primary. But nearly as many voters cast ballots for his top two conservative challengers. Getting them to vote for Tillis appears to be a struggle.

Many tea party conservatives are disaffected with Tillis.

That stems in part from his refusal to attend several tea party-sponsored primary debates and the perception that he’s the establishment candidate who represents politics as usual. Last November, a dozen sign-carrying tea party activists protested a Charlotte fundraiser for Tillis that featured former White House adviser Karl Rove.

Primary opponents Greg Brannon and Mark Harris sought to cast Tillis as an insider with ties to special interests. And in an email to her members Tuesday, Bilello wrote, “Both Hagan and Tillis have very long track records with political elites and corporatists.”

Brant Clifton, who publishes a conservative website The Daily Haymaker, said “There’s not the excitement out there.”

“There are not people who are going to be dragging their friends and neighbors out of the house to vote for Thom,” he said.

Clothespin support

To Tillis supporters, the choice should be easy.

“Either not voting or not voting for Tillis is essentially casting a vote for six more years of Hagan and two more years of President (Barack) Obama’s failed policies,” said Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin.

That’s an argument many conservatives buy.

“You’ve got a lot of people in the tea party who realize how important this election is in control of the Senate,” said Jack Brosch, an activist from Charlotte who ran for state party chairman last year. “And a good many of them are taking that stance – hold your nose and vote for Tillis.”

Miriam Chu is doing just that. A photo on the Facebook page of Moore TEA Citizens, a group she heads, shows her nose pinched by an oversize clothespin.

“You know what? I’d like to vote for Ronald Reagan for Senate, but he’s not on the ballot,” Chu said. “It’s time we get behind Tillis. He is the most conservative Senate candidate.”

But grass-roots activists are split. Many don’t subscribe to the notion that a vote against Tillis is a vote for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Delma Blinson, editor of a conservative website called the Beaufort Observer, said no article in years got as many hits as the one headlined: “Bogus argument: ‘We must elect Tillis to get rid of Harry Reid.’ ”

“There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Republican leadership and Democratic leadership in Washington,” Blinson said. “There are too many soft Republican votes that will vote with the Democratic leadership when the chips are down.”

Looking for alternatives

While Tillis has the support of establishment Republicans such as Gov. Pat McCrory and Rove, Blinson said many conservatives perceive him to be “in the pocket of special interests.”

Some activists say they’re ready to ditch party loyalty in the favor of a third party or even a write-in candidate more closely aligned with their views. Libertarian Sean Hough continues to poll in single digits.

“There are a number of folks who will no long hold their nose and vote for a candidate just because they happen to be a member of a party,” said Christian Hine, leader of a Charlotte tea party group called CAUTION. “By continually giving people we don’t support our vote, we really can never expect to see the change we really want.”

Bilello of the Asheville Tea Party said Paul, a U.S. senator from Kentucky, could “lose trust and credibility with the grass roots” by campaigning for Tillis. On Thursday night her group will host write-in candidate John Rhodes, a Huntersville real estate broker and former state lawmaker Tillis defeated in 2006 to win his first term in the legislature.

Pat Kleinmaier, who heads a Winston-Salem group called FOCUS, said her group is split. Some, including her, plan to write in Rhodes.

“Others are holding their noses and voting for Thom Tillis because they want to get rid of Kay Hagan and Harry Reid,” she said. “That’s the only reason they’re voting for him. It’s not because they love Thom Tillis.”

And if her vote were to make the difference in re-electing Hagan, or even Reid?

“If Tillis loses by one vote,” she said, “then so be it.”

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