RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — It was fair to expect at least some fireworks when Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic former rival Cal Cunningham got together again.
Fast forward two years, and they say they’re friends now, with the whole point of their reunion to send a message about bipartisanship.
The two appeared at an event earlier this week at the University of North Carolina two days after Election Day — when voters elected the state’s newest U.S. Senator, Republican Ted Budd — focused on maintaining friendships across the political divide.
Tillis pointed out during the fireside chat that lawmakers could do a better job at working with members of the opposite party in the Senate — but that the reality is not always as ugly as it appears.
That raised a question: Is Tillis the right guy to talk about reaching across the aisle?
“I don’t know if anybody involved in the political wars these days is the right person, because it’s so polarized,” quipped Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic consultant and professor of the practice at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
McCorkle says Tillis “has aspired to that” by “not demonizing his opponents.”
“He’s old-fashioned, ‘I’ve got policy differences,'” McCorkle said. “But at the same time, kind of reminds me of the Al Pacino figure in ‘The Godfather,’ who says, ‘I’ve got to get out of this, and then I’m dragged back in.'”
Allies of Tillis point to a bipartisan gun safety bill — the first gun control measure to pass Congress in decades — that passed in June as evidence of his willingness to reach across the aisle.
Tillis introduced the Safer Communities Act along with Texas Republican John Cornyn and Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
But Georgetown University and the Lugar Center — which team up to rank members of Congress based on how bipartisan they are — has Tillis just 57th among the 100 senators, the second straight year that has fallen.
His ranking had been between No. 28 and No. 38 every year since 2015, when his first six-year term began.
“The bar is low … and I think on gun control, on the gun issue, and a couple of things he has definitely stood out,” McCorkle said. “I think we've probably got further to go than we are right now on both sides.”
And McCorkle pointed out the political calculation that also could be at play: The largest bloc of registered voters in North Carolina is the unaffiliated ones.
“So the idea that you can be the right person for North Carolina by being 100 percent Republican, or 100 percent Democrat, that really isn’t true,” McCorkle said.
Another question was raised: Just how bipartisan will North Carolina’s Senate delegation be going forward now with the election of Donald Trump-endorsed Ted Budd — whose campaign prop was a monster truck called the Liberal Agenda Crusher?
Especially when compared to retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr, who during that same time frame never ranked worse than 30th in the bipartisanship rankings.
Out of 435 members of the U.S. House ranked according to those same criteria, Budd most recently was 394th and since taking office in 2017 has never been ranked higher than 358th.
“He, in many ways, got away with acting like, ‘I’m just like Richard Burr’s younger fraternity brother,’” McCorkle said.