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Thom Tillis and non-MAGA NC Republicans: reaping what they helped sow

Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) (Photo: Screen grab from

by Rob Schofield, NC Newsline
March 19, 2024

History tells us that it’s a common fate for those who play leading roles in the early days of revolutions and other big political transformations: One minute, you’re an envelope pushing agent of change, and the next, you’re roadkill – overrun and consumed by the very forces you helped to unleash.

North Carolinians might be watching just such a scenario play out right now in the state’s conservative movement.

Early in the last decade, when Republicans took control of state government for the first time in the modern era, a politician named Thom Tillis played a leading role. In 2011, Tillis was a newish, relatively obscure Republican state representative who, along with a large group of similarly situated colleagues, suddenly found himself in a Legislative Building majority.

It seems rather quaint now, but at the time, a key driving force behind the rise of the new GOP House and Senate majorities was something called the Tea Party – a somewhat inchoate hard right political movement that took its name from the famous American Revolution event, and that was marked mostly by a passionate opposition to taxes and government, and in many places, a thinly veiled animus to the nation’s first Black president.

Like a lot of other traditional, suburban, establishment Republicans, Tillis had entered politics with few revolutionary tendencies, but he was ambitious, smart and relatively polished, and quick to recognize the potential of (and embrace) the Tea Party movement.

And so it was that a corporate consulting firm employee who had moved to North Carolina a little over a decade earlier and only commenced his political career in 2003 with run for his town park board, became Speaker of a new wave House of Representatives and a key point person in the implementation of an ambitious, right-wing policy agenda.

For four years – and especially once Republicans took the governor’s mansion in the 2012 election – Tillis led the state House as it helped enact dozens of new laws that slashed taxes, shredded the social safety net, and gutted business regulations, while also advancing several conservative culture war goals.

Through it all, however, Tillis repeatedly demonstrated that he was no extremist of the current MAGA ilk.

Much like Mitt Romney and his infamous 47% remark, Tillis had an awkward moment when the recording of a talk he gave to a small group of Republicans (in which he urged society to look down on people receiving government assistance) went public.

But for the most part, his rhetoric and stances were tame by present-day standards.

Though, for instance, he helped arrange for the passage of Amendment One – a short lived state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage – he also publicly forecast its ultimate demise in the years ahead before voters even went to the polls.

And when he leapfrogged to the U.S. Senate in 2014, he quickly embraced the center-right approach of the state’s then-senior senator Richard Burr — a Reagan-Bush Republican who was always motivated more by personal political advancement than deep-seated beliefs.

Unfortunately for Tillis, however, the movement he had done so much to set in motion during the early part of the decade continued to rapidly evolve and turn ever further to the hard right.

And with the arrival of Trumpism, a pragmatic embrace of Tea Party conservatism on taxes and government, married with traditional Republican stances on most other issues, soon wasn’t enough to command the support of most GOP voters. By the end of Tillis’s first six years in Washington, only a series of embarrassingly craven flipflops (most notably on immigration) and a willingness to – at least formally – demonstrate fealty to Trump, saved Tillis from a right-wing primary challenge to his reelection.

Since then, the trend has only continued to intensify – so much so that in 2024, Tillis is not only out of step with much of the GOP electorate on issues like opposition to Russian autocracy and expansionism that had long been boilerplate conservative stances, he’s also disconnected from almost all of his state party’s MAGA-endorsed candidates for high office in November. This includes gubernatorial nominee Mark Robinson, who Tillis has not endorsed and who has lambasted Tillis for having “abandoned the base of our party.”

Where Tillis and other Republicans like him go from here (and how things go for Tillis politically) is one of the many questions that will likely be answered this fall.

If the GOP-MAGA slate – Trump, Robinson, Attorney General nominee Dan Bishop, Superintendent of Public Instruction nominee Michele Morrow – comes up short, it could mark the highwater, shark-jumping moment for the far right and signal at least a partial revival of Tillis’s pragmatic, Reagan-Bush conservatism.

If, however, the opposite occurs and the extreme right seizes control of the state and nation starting in 2025, it seems likely Sen. Tillis will face an existential choice: abandon all principles on issues like immigration and the survival of Ukraine and get onboard the extremist bandwagon or get laid low and swallowed up in short order by the very movement he once helped to spur and lead.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.