Under the Dome

Super PAC ad hits Tillis on sex scandal

Democrats aren’t waiting until November to play a trump card against House Speaker Thom Tillis in the U.S. Senate race.

A super PAC is putting about $1 million behind a new TV ad in North Carolina that attacks Tillis for romantic relationships his two legislative aides had with lobbyists and the severance payments he gave them after they resigned. (See the ad below.)

The ad hit TV on Wednesday and will run for the final 21 days of the Republican primary, just as Tillis’ rivals are questioning his character and he struggles to reach the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

The 30-second spot is from the Senate Majority PAC – a Democratic group trying to help re-elect U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. It details a News & Observer story from April 2012 that questioned Charles Thomas, Tillis’ chief of staff, about an extramarital affair with a lobbyist from the home builders association. Thomas, a former Asheville lawmaker, immediately resigned.

Tillis and Thomas shared an apartment in Raleigh, but Tillis said he knew nothing about the affair. The speaker later gave Thomas and another staffer, Amy Hobbs, who also resigned for an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist, a combined $19,333 as severance pay. At the time, Tillis defended the payments as part of the “human side” that takes into account the families affected.

The ad’s kicker: “Thom Tillis – spending our money to clean up his mess.”

The line is a riff on an attack Tillis made against Hagan in his first TV ad, in which he emphasized accountability. In the spot, Tillis criticized Hagan for refusing to clean up President Barack Obama’s “mess” on the federal health care law.

Tillis’ campaign issued a response that avoided discussing the substance of the ad and instead attacked Democrats. “Harry Reid and far-left liberals hit the panic button yesterday,” said spokesman Jordan Shaw, Tillis’ campaign manager. “They have given up on propping up Kay Hagan, and they know their only chance at victory is meddling in the Republican primary. It won’t work.”

It’s inevitable that critics would use the embarrassing episode to attack Tillis, but the timing is intriguing. It would appear to help Republicans Greg Brannon and Mark Harris, who trail Tillis in polling and fundraising.

Tillis’ campaign quickly sent an email to supporters Wednesday, trying to use the ad to raise money. In the email, Shaw called the Democrats’ strategy “the McCaskill Plan,” a reference to Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. In 2012, some conservatives accused the McCaskill campaign of boosting Todd Akin in the GOP primary, knowing he had liabilities for the November election.

“Harry Reid and Kay Hagan are now meddling in the Republican primary. They want to pick the Republican nominee. And the candidate they do NOT want to face is Thom Tillis,” Shaw wrote in the email.

Democratic strategist and blogger Thomas Mills said the ad makes a runoff even more likely, a move that would further debilitate Tillis’ campaign if he eventually emerges to challenge Hagan in November.

“It’s a smart move,” Mills wrote. “Not only does it resonate with GOP primary voters, it begins to define Tillis in general. Nobody, regardless of party affiliation, wants a U.S. senator with a hint of scandal following him, especially in the state that had to suffer through the John Edwards affair.”