Fortunately for him, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) doesn’t have to answer for making questionable stock sales timed around the coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately for him, he may have to answer for someone else’s: Sen. Richard Burr.
Burr, Tillis’ fellow North Carolina GOP senator, is under federal investigation for selling up to $1.7 million worth of stock holdings before COVID-19 crashed financial markets. After his phone was seized by federal agents last week, Burr stepped down from his chairmanship of the powerful Senate intelligence committee, and his political future is in peril.
But it’s Tillis who is facing North Carolina voters this fall, and the cloud of scandal around his counterpart could make the headwinds facing Tillis even stiffer as he seeks re-election. Shortly after the news of Burr’s trading first broke in March, Tillis came out with a stern statement saying that his fellow Republican owed the people of North Carolina an “explanation” for what happened.
The first-term Republican was already vulnerable thanks to an iffy relationship with the staunchly pro-Trump GOP base in North Carolina and the emergence of a well-funded Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham. At the top of the ticket, Democrats are increasingly bullish about their chances for presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden to seriously contest North Carolina, and many believe the incumbent governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, will also add to Cunningham’s coattails as he seeks a second term.
Now, Tillis’ future in the Senate may come down to his ability to walk a tightrope between placating his GOP base and pleasing a growing bloc of North Carolina swing voters. It’s a balancing act that he’s faced for years, but the Burr drama now boils it down to its essence: while Tillis has to be careful not to close ranks behind Burr so as to not alienate voters who have soured on him, he risks alienating conservatives if he goes after Burr too aggressively.
Add it all up and some North Carolina Republicans are showing concern that Tillis’ fate could be tied into his fellow senator’s dealings.
“It don't matter which party you are, but anytime somebody is being under investigation it is going to fallout with everybody that they're associated with,” said Ron Wyatt, the chairman of the Iredell County Republican Party. “We've got two senators in North Carolina, so if one is being investigated, rightfully or wrongfully, then it is absolutely going to draw extra criticism and scrutiny on that other person that's in the same party, running for the equal position.”
"While nobody is surprised that people go to D.C. poor and come out millionaires, it will be utilized to probably drive people away from Tillis," said Chris Weaver, chairman of the Person County GOP. “It’ll be used opportunistically by people opposed to Republicans.”
The impact of Burr’s baggage on Tillis could play a role in determining which party controls the U.S. Senate next year: He is one of four GOP incumbents who Democrats need to unseat in order to take back the majority. Operatives on both sides anticipate that the North Carolina race may wind up as the tightest and most expensive in the country.
So far, national Republicans have evinced little concern that the Burr scandal could envelop Tillis in a meaningful way—and certainly not in the way that a similar stock trading story around Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) is being feared by some Republicans as a deadweight for GOP candidates in Georgia.
Confirming North Carolina Republicans’ worries, however, is how swiftly Democrats have worked to tie the two together. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the party’s official arm for Senate races, issued a press release last week saying the developments in the Burr case turned up the “heat” on Loeffler, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), and Tillis. Of the three, Tillis is the only one whose stock transactions are not under scrutiny.
Democratic operatives told The Daily Beast that they don’t view the Burr story as a game-changing handicap for Tillis, but they framed it as one more obstacle for a campaign that can’t afford many more. “Anything that’s a distraction for a campaign can become fatal,” a Democratic operative who works on Senate races told The Daily Beast.
According to Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist who worked for Cunningham’s first Senate bid in 2010 as well as for the DSCC, Tillis risks “death by a thousand cuts.”
“This is about an atmosphere of corruption,” said Leopold. “And that’s going to be a cloud that Tillis needs to manage.”
In response to a request for comment from The Daily Beast, Tillis’s campaign declined to provide a new comment for the story, instead pointing to a May 14 story published by the Charlotte Observer quoting Paul Shumaker, whom the paper cites as a campaign consultant for Tillis and Burr. “Voters are not going to make their decision on the fact that you’ve got one senator in the state under investigation and one who’s not,” Shumaker told the news organization.
Tillis’ campaign also pointed The Daily Beast to their statement last week after the FBI phone seizure broke, which said that Burr “owes North Carolinians a full explanation,” a line that Tillis has used since the scandal first broke in March. Tillis also said Burr made the “right decision” to step down as chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
Some North Carolina Republicans largely dismissed concerns with Burr’s financial maneuvers,
Which also puts Tillis in a tight spot. “I don’t consider him to have done anything wrong,” said Warner Wingler, chairman of the Yadkin County Republican Party, adding later that it was “a political ploy” to try and hurt Burr.
And Lanny Lancaster, a former chair of the Cabarrus County GOP and a current member of the board of elections for the suburban Charlotte county, told The Daily Beast he was disappointed in Tillis’ statements so far about Burr.
“If I were Sen. Tillis, I’d support him 100 percent,” said Lancaster. “I wish he would have stood by him a little more. But I’m not up for re-election.”
This point could become problematic for Tillis, because it plays into a stubborn weakness of his: perception among some North Carolina Republicans that he’s been insufficiently loyal to the party and to President Trump. Some, including Trump, do not appear to have totally forgiven Tillis for declaring in a high-profile op-ed in February 2019 that he’d vote to block Trump from using emergency powers to fund the border wall with Mexico—before reversing himself and voting in favor of the move weeks later.”
Trump’s “the man,” said Ken Henson, the chairman of the Haywood County Republican Party, who added that he wasn’t a fan of either Burr or Tillis. He does plan to support Tillis in November despite professing that he likes “really super conservative people.”
“Well I feel like if the president, if he had a few more Jim Jordans and Mark Meadows and people like that, there’s no telling what he could have got done,” Henson said, referencing two of Trump’s biggest allies in Congress, one of which—Meadows, also of North Carolina—is now White House chief of staff.
"It would be amazing what he could have got done if he hadn’t had so many Richard Burrs and Tom Tillis to not know which way they might go. He needed more (that) had his back and we would be rocking and rolling right now.”
Meanwhile, Cunningham, Tillis’ opponent, is aiming to use the Burr drama as a way to paint Tillis as overly loyal to his party, to the detriment of his responsibilities as senator. “Senator Tillis’ inability to stand up to his own party, even in light of damning behavior being investigated by Trump’s Justice Department, is just the latest example of how weak Tillis has become and how low he’ll stoop to protect his political future,” said Aaron Simpson, a spokesman for Cunningham’s campaign.
What ultimately makes the Burr scandal so fraught for Tillis, some say, is that it could push him even farther into a place that has been inhospitable for elected Republicans in the Trump era: caught between a party base that demands total loyalty and an important bloc of voters in the middle who want to see independence.
“He’s gonna be whipsawed in holding his ground with the right while appealing to the center. It’s a very difficult thing to do,” Leopold, the Democratic strategist, told The Daily Beast. “These things can fall flat when you’re playing an isolated gotcha-game, but when it’s part of a broader narrative that defines who that candidate is, then it can be a potent proof point.”