Campaign Notebook

Tillis fights back against Democrat’s ad

jfrank@newsobserver.com jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comApril 17, 2014 

As Democrats level more attacks, Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis is taking to television to defend a sex scandal in his office, but critics are saying he is “rewriting history.”

Tillis’ U.S. Senate campaign debuted a new TV ad Thursday that pushed back against a Democratic super PAC’s commercial that highlighted the nearly $20,000 severance package he gave to two married staffers who departed after admitting romantic relationships with lobbyists.

The Tillis campaign’s quick response, coming a day after the Senate Majority PAC launched its ad, speaks to the severity of the charges and the potential political harm to the Republican front-runner’s campaign.

In the new 30-second spot, Tillis claims he “fired the staffers” – a point contradicted by his own language at the time of the controversy in 2012, when Tillis allowed them to resign and receive the payouts. In the ad, he also blames Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada for the attacks. The super PAC is run by former Reid aides.

“Seen those ads attacking Thom Tillis?” a narrator says in Tillis’ ad. “They’re false. Tillis fired the staffers. Know who’s paying for the sleazy ads? It’s Harry Reid.

“Reid’s trying to fool Republican voters, meddling in our primary to get a weak opponent for Kay Hagan.”

The departure of the two staffers – one was his chief of staff with whom Tillis shared a Raleigh apartment and the other a policy adviser – were announced as resignations. In a statement at the time, Tillis said Chief of Staff Charles Thomas “verbally offered his resignation … I have accepted his resignation.” The two staffers were given a total severance of $19,333.

“Speaker Tillis is entitled to his own opinions but not his own facts,” said Ben Ray, a spokesman for Forward North Carolina, a group allied with Hagan.

Asked about the discrepancy, spokesman Jordan Shaw said Thursday that Tillis “initiated the action of asking for their resignation.”

Democrat Kay Hagan’s campaign said the explanation is untruthful. “Thom Tillis is trying to rewrite history to hide the fact that his staffers who had inappropriate relationships with lobbyists got taxpayer funded severance packages,” Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said in a statement.

Hagan’s campaign added more flames to the fire Thursday, launching its first ad of the campaign – a minute-long radio spot that highlights the staffers’ romantic relationships with lobbyists. “Instead of firing them, Tillis arranged for golden parachutes, paid for by taxpayers,” the Hagan ad says. The kicker: “Those may be values, but they’re not North Carolina’s.”

It also criticizes Tillis for giving mixed messages about his position on the federal health care law.

Hagan’s decision to attack Tillis in the final weeks of the Republican primary will amplify Tillis’ charge that Democrats are trying to influence the May 6 vote.

Tillis is facing a challenge from Greg Brannon, a first-time candidate backed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and tea party activists whose positions sit further right than those of most mainstream Republicans.

Republican strategist Carter Wrenn said the accusations could amount to a “game changer” in the Republican primary. He suggested Tillis blaming Democrats for meddling won’t be enough to counter the charges.

“He might have said, ‘I made a mistake.’ But didn’t,” Wrenn wrote on the blog, Talking About Politics. “Instead he announced to the press, ‘Harry Reid hit the panic button.’ And blasted Reid for meddling in the Republican Primary. … But it won’t cut the mustard.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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