Instead of coming to McCrory’s aid, Tillis kept his head down. In 2011, he too had passed a bill to establish a state exchange. During the spat between the Senate and the governor, he never spoke up, and the Senate bill passed the House unamended. While Tillis might have understood the need for moderation in a general election, he could clearly see the peril of crossing the raging conservatives. Before he could become a U.S. senator, he would have to get through a primary with at least some conservative support; supporting an exchange or Medicaid expansion through Obamacare would be construed as consorting with the enemy.
An alliance between McCrory and Tillis that could have promoted a more moderate agenda or reined in the most radical notions never materialized. Instead, they were repeatedly rebuffed by the Senate. When Tillis and McCrory got behind a plan to sell a large piece of state property to the city of Raleigh, senators rejected the proposal, saying they hadn’t been consulted. When the governor supported a House tax-reform measure at odds with a Senate proposal, then-Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Bob Rucho retorted, “If Pat had real business experience, he would not make such a poor policy decision.”
While the Senate was causing Tillis headaches, his own caucus was running off without him. The flurry of bills coming out of the House was staggering. Members introduced legislation to restrict voting, ban Sharia law, exempt the state from recognizing federal laws, and allow silencers on hunting rifles. Two representatives introduced a bill that would allow for a state religion, making the state a national laughingstock. One member publicly criticized Tillis for holding up bills about guns and religion and another resigned his chairmanship of the House Finance Committee in a dispute with the speaker. In an unusually public appeal, Tillis posted a message on his Facebook page warning his colleagues about overreach. The next day, the House passed a bill to allow guns in bars, on college campuses, and on public greenways and walking trails.
To add to the pressure, Moral Monday protests were attracting crowds of thousands every week and the national press was focused on the most radical aspects of the Republican agenda. Tillis tried to strike a moderate tone by calling for a dialogue but was drowned out by partisans on his right flank. The Republican base was in battle mode and in no mood for niceties. One senator penned an op-ed calling the protests “Moron Mondays.”
Meanwhile, Tillis still had his eye on the looming U.S. Senate race. Initially, he tried to dampen speculation while the legislature was in session, but rumors about Berger’s plans to run apparently made him uneasy. At the end of May, four months into the session, Tillis announced he was running. The announcement was met with questions about his motives. The press criticized him for fundraising in Washington during the legislative session and asked whether his appointments of donors to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors had been a political ploy. Berger emerged as the more serious legislative leader while Tillis morphed into the ambitious politician seeking higher office.