Thom Tillis triumphed Tuesday in a crowded Republican primary field for the right to challenge Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., in November, but it's not full steam ahead just yet.
Before the North Carolina state speaker can fully focus his sights on Hagan in one of Republicans' best pickup opportunities, Tillis must first survive the legislative session, where policymaking can produce potential pitfalls for any candidate for higher office.
Tillis has said he will not relinquish his position to pursue his Senate campaign, so the speaker will preside when the General Assembly comes back into session on May 14. It will be a short session — it should last just a few weeks, or as long as it takes to tweak the budget passed last year and deal with a couple of financial issues. But Democrats will undoubtedly target Tillis for anything that comes out of it and his focus won't be solely on winning the Senate seat.
The General Assembly “needs to get in and get out," North Carolina Republican operative Dallas Woodhouse said.
“Every day they are there is a day that [Tillis] is not on the campaign trail, is a day that it is hard for him to raise money,” Woodhouse continued. “So every day that they are there is a lost day for Tillis.” Tillis' ability to emerge from the primary and avoid a costly runoff was a boon for the candidate and national party, which must net six seats to win the Senate majority in November. As a result, the race was moved into the more competitive category of Tossup by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
But the Senate race won't wait for Tillis. Senate Majority PAC, a Democrat-aligned super PAC, already has purchased around $800,000 of TV time beginning Friday, according to the group's spokesman.
The Hagan campaign has already begun attacking Tillis for legislation passed during his tenure as speaker. And Democrats held a conference call Wednesday featuring North Carolina residents discussing how they were hurt by policies passed under Tillis.
State budget analysts recently projected a $445 million budget revenue shortfall, and North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory announced Wednesday a plan to raise salaries for all North Carolina teachers. To make that happen while simultaneously dealing with the budget, some significant cuts may have to be made — and Democrats will undoubtedly attack Tillis for whatever gets cut.
“Thom Tillis is going to be held accountable for and have to answer for his divisive anti-middle-class agenda every single day between now and November," Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said. "And in terms of the short session of the General Assembly, the effects of Thom Tillis’ disastrous tax plan are coming home to roost and he’s going to have to deal with a $445 million budget shortfall because he gave the rich tax breaks."
For their part, the Tillis campaign is "not terribly concerned" about any political ramifications potentially stemming from the session, Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw said.
"Politics are always in play in the legislature, and we understand that, that’s part of it," Shaw said. "But we’ve been dealing with that for three years. We’ve got a lot of political games being played ... that’s something we’ve been able to navigate very effectively."
Still, Democrats might also try to push legislation that would highlight some of the criticisms of Tillis. For instance, Tillis has been accused of "pay for play” after three donors to a super PAC supporting Tillis were appointed to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.
In light of that, said a Democratic campaign operative close to the legislature, Democrats “will probably try to push some ethics legislation,” to keep that in the conversation. For instance, the operative said, Democrats are “interested in finding ways to make sure there’s more disclosure of campaign contributions when you’re appointing someone to the UNC Board of Governors.”
Tillis could also face problems from within his own party. The state Senate and state House haven't always been on the same page, and Tillis will have to contend with that.
"He has 78 members. Every day they’re there is a chance for one of them to say something dumb,” Woodhouse said. "And if they do, it comes back to Tillis.”
Members of the state legislature are prohibited from raising campaign funds while the General Assembly is in session, a rule designed to prevent donors from influencing the agenda. Tillis would be raising money for a U.S. Senate campaign, which is allowed, but Democrats indicated they might use that against him anyway.
Then there is the Moral Monday movement — a group of progressives who protested outside the General Assembly every Monday last session, and who have promised to do the same this time. The longer the legislature is gaveled in, the more Moral Monday protests will take place. Republicans expect the crowds will only grow in size, as they did last time.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest — every Republicans’ best interest — to get in and go home,” one North Carolina Republican operative said.
"If they do not go quickly," the operative added, "they risk further energizing Hagan’s base."