Tea Party nut in RINO's clothing: Meet North Carolina's real Thom Tillis

Tillis' win is victory for GOP establishment that's surrendered ideologically to the far-right fringe. Here's why

Published May 7, 2014 4:48PM (EDT)

Thom Tillis                         (AP/Chuck Burton)
Thom Tillis (AP/Chuck Burton)

This story has been corrected.

Let’s give the so-called GOP establishment its day to celebrate. North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis beat his Republican primary challengers for a U.S. Senate seat Tuesday night, backed by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. So Wednesday is the day most of the media will say Bush won, Rand Paul (who endorsed his opponent) lost, the Tea Party stands defeated and Sen. Kay Hagan is in trouble.

That last part is true, but the rest is nonsense. Far from having lost, the Tea Party has gotten most of what it wanted in Tillis. The House speaker is a leader of the movement to repeal most of the 20th century in North Carolina. He’s a tax-slashing, voter ID-backing, anti-choice extremist who opposes a federal minimum wage. Just to make clear Tillis is no threat to Tea Party ideology, Rand Paul endorsed him before the final votes were counted Tuesday night.

There was little daylight between Tillis and the “official” Tea Party candidate, Greg Brannon. During the campaign, Tillis bragged about leading the charge to refuse expanded Medicaid funding and said he opposed the congressional deal that averted a debt default last October. A fervent backer of personhood legislation, he told a North Carolina paper that he agreed with Brannon that states have the power to ban contraception (back in 1967, you'll recall, the Supreme Court disagreed.) He presided over a budget that cut the state’s education budget by half a billion dollars, eliminated North Carolina’s earned income tax credit and raised taxes on 80 percent of state residents while slashing top rates.

And late in the campaign, he became national news because of an ugly rant about how to “divide and conquer” poor people that made Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remarks sound like the Sermon on the Mount. In 2011 Tillis told an audience:

What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance. We have to show respect for that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice, in her condition, that needs help and that we should help. And we need to get those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government and say at some point, “You’re on your own. We may end up taking care of those babies, but we’re not going to take care of you.”

All that distinguishes Tillis from his far-right opponents is a little bit more polish. As the New York Times’ David Firestone writes in “There Are No Mainstream Republicans Left in North Carolina,” lazy pundits are proclaiming that the “establishment” won in North Carolina “only because they have redefined the term ‘Republican establishment’ to include adamant adherents of a far-right ideology.”

Of course, now that he’s won the primary, Tillis is wriggling a little bit, trying to edge toward the center for a race against Hagen. While he talked tough against the minimum wage just a few months ago, on Wednesday morning he refused to tell MSNBC’s Chuck Todd whether he’d support a hike in his state’s minimum wage. Maybe he’s seen polls showing that 56 percent of North Carolinians want to see the minimum wage increased.

Kay Hagan will have plenty of material to use against Tillis. Democrats can only hope that his primary win puts an end to the narrative that he is some kind of moderate trying to tame the Tea Party beast. The Tea Party beast has taken over the party.

An earlier version of this post stated that Americans for Prosperity backed Tillis. Although the Koch-funded group has already spent more than $7 million in North Carolina, its ads attacked Hagan but didn't take sides in the primary.

Thom Tillis Wins Primary In North Carolina Senate Race

By Joan Walsh