RALEIGH — Moments before the N.C. House began debating a contentious abortion-related bill last week, Speaker Thom Tillis exited for the campaign trail.
The leading Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate traveled to Charlotte for a campaign fundraiser where donors paid as much as $2,600 to meet him.
Tillis entered the race in May, vowing to stay focused on his job. But just weeks later, he finds himself pulled in competing directions and raising money from donors interested in legislation.
As a legislator, Tillis is prohibited under state law from raising money from lobbyists or companies and organizations with lobbyists during the lawmaking session.
The ban, however, doesn’t apply to federal candidates – meaning Tillis can solicit U.S. Senate campaign cash even as he influences major state legislation, such as a tax overhaul, the state budget and industry regulations. As speaker, Tillis sets the House agenda, deciding in large part which bills live and which die.
Running parallel to the campaign effort, a super PAC supporting Tillis’ candidacy, Grow NC Strong, is soliciting checks not subject to federal donation limits.
The Tillis campaign’s fundraising strategist, Jonathan Brooks of Macon Consulting, is also collecting money for the super PAC. Under federal rules, the two entities aren’t permitted to coordinate messages and strategy, but they can blend the fundraising operations, campaign attorney Roger Knight said.
Ahead of Sunday’s fundraising period deadline – the first for Tillis to show he is a viable candidate – the campaign put an emphasis on banking donors with three events last week in three cities over a three-day span. The events were hosted by more than 30 of the state’s most prominent Republican donors.
The Raleigh hosts included Bob Ingram, former chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, John Kane, who developed North Hills, and builder John Coley.
The hosts for all three events combined to give an estimated $125,000, according to invitations. With a $250 minimum donation for the event, the total haul likely will total much more.
Interested in legislation
A number of the top donors are advocating for legislation this session. Royce Everette, a co-host for the Greenville event, is one the state’s largest consumer finance lenders. He helped direct $1.8 million for lobbying and campaign donations in an effort to convince lawmakers to approve legislation that increases profits for the industry, the Associated Press reported.
The fundraiser came days after the industry’s bill to raise loan interest rates and fees won legislative approval and Gov. Pat McCrory signed it into law.
Everette said his donation was not directly tied to the legislation, adding that he has supported Tillis for years. “If you have a person who you think is a good person, you try to support them,” Everette told the AP. “That’s the way it goes. Thom Tillis is a good person. Did he help us? Yes. So I support him.”
Everette’s mother, Gail Blanton, another lending industry executive, hosted a fundraiser for Tillis’ legislative campaign in 2011 that brought in $30,000, campaign finance reports show.
Even though federal fundraising during session is legal, Bob Phillips at Common Cause, a Raleigh nonprofit that advocates for diminishing the role of money in politics, said it looks bad for Tillis to raise money from people with an interest in state legislation.
“I’m not saying (Tillis) is leveraging his office for more money, but it creates a perception out there that some folks are getting an advantage,” he said.
Tillis was not available for comment. But his political consultant, Paul Shumaker, dismissed concerns about Tillis soliciting donors who have interests pending in the legislature.
He said it’s no different than Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan raising money from those seeking to influence Congress. He said the focus on Tillis “clearly corresponds to how threatened (Democrats) feel about the speaker.”
As a U.S. senator, Hagan can raise campaign money without any timing restrictions. She does not, however, have the same power to influence federal legislation that Tillis holds in the state House.
The Greenville fundraiser, a luncheon, forced Tillis to miss the start of Tuesday’s legislative session. And he left just after 2 p.m. Thursday to make it to a 5 p.m. event at the Myers Park Country Club in Charlotte.
Rich Gilbert, a Charlotte anesthesiologist who helped host the event, said Tillis laid out his case for the Senate and talked about being speaker and traveling the state. About 50 people attended.
“He is terrific from the perspective of his ability to get things done, his ability to analyze complex issues ... and move agendas forward,” Gilbert said.
Minutes after Tillis left the statehouse Thursday, the House began an hourlong debate on a measure to require schools to teach students about the connection between abortion and preterm birth, the week’s most high-profile bill. When he presides over the House sessions, Tillis controls the debate but typically does not vote.
In announcing his campaign a month ago, Tillis said he would focus on the session and “raise money at the appropriate time.”
“I don’t intend to campaign heavily and actively until after we get out of session,” he said in May.
With Tillis’ focus last week on fundraising, Democrats pounced on what they saw as a contradiction.
“North Carolinians don’t want a leader who walks out on their elected responsibilities on the House floor to raise campaign cash, and it is clear Thom Tillis’ priorities are dictated by his special-interest backers rather than middle-class families,” Hagan campaign manager Preston Elliott said in a prepared statement.
Tillis aides said three events in one week doesn’t represent an active schedule – expect four to six a week when the campaign hits full stride later this year.
Asked last week about his decision to skip part of the day’s session, Tillis turned the topic to Hagan.
“I think it’s a balance that Sen. Kay Hagan struck very well when she was appropriations chair in the (state) Senate, and I in many respects (plan) to do the same and probably much better,” he said.
A similar circumstance
In 2008, Hagan, then a key state senator, raised $1 million for her U.S. Senate campaign in the 40 days the legislature spent in session, according to federal reports. At the time, she was co-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, helping write the state budget.
Tillis may raise much more during the session because he started his campaign earlier in the cycle than Hagan did in 2008. He is expected to continue raising money when the legislature convenes next year.
The fundraising demands are just the nature of a campaign with national implications, Shumaker said.
The candidates are expecting to raise $12 million to remain competitive in a race political observers believe could help decide whether Democrats keep the Senate majority.
For Tillis, that would mean averaging roughly $700,000 a month. “Every incumbent has to balance those challenges” of elected office and the campaign, Shumaker said.
Hagan starts the contest with a distinct advantage. She raised $1.6 million in the first quarter this year, putting her cash in the bank at $2.7 million, according to Federal Election Commission reports from March 31.
In late May, her campaign hosted a fundraiser at lobbyist Bruce Thompson’s home in Raleigh.
Thompson is a lawyer at the Parker Poe law firm and represents 20 clients at the state legislature. The hosts gave $2,600 each and the minimum donation to attend was $100, according to an invitation.
Hagan’s spokeswoman would not answer questions about the fundraiser.
And neither Hagan nor Tillis aides would discuss how much the campaigns expected to raise before Sunday’s end to the fiscal quarter. The campaigns won’t file disclosure reports until mid-July.
Staff researcher David Raynor and Charlotte Observer staff writer Jim Morrill contributed to this report.