To the three American senators, it was a jaw-dropping scene.
They had traveled to the Balkans in April to reinforce western sanctions on Russia. Now they sat in the sprawling presidential building in Sarajevo across the table from Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three presidents, the unwieldy trio that governs a country where ethnic tensions endanger a fragile stability.
The presidents—a Serb, a Croat, and a Bosnian Muslim—argued and traded insults; the Serb threatened to bolt the power-sharing partnership. When they could get a word in, the American senators counseled the importance of unity. The presidents barely listened.
The senators, Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Democrats Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, took some solace from their own unity in the situation. Even as they witnessed the perils of sectarian divides, they were transcending political rifts back home.
“It was a very tense meeting, a very difficult meeting, but we walked out feeling like the three of us made a pretty good team,” Murphy told The Assembly. “We were able to sort of listen to each other and finish each other’s sentences. It was pretty clear that we were well in tune with each other.”
Their chemistry paid dividends.
Two days after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, in May, Tillis and Murphy found themselves huddled in Kyrsten Sinema’s pink-walled Capitol hideaway with the Arizona Democrat and Texas Republican John Cornyn. There they began to hammer out the agreement that would produce the first major gun legislation in nearly three decades.
In July, Tillis, Murphy, and Shaheen were among 16 senators who reached a compromise on updating an 1887 electoral law designed to avoid a repeat of January 6, 2021.
In an increasingly polarized Congress, Tillis’s willingness to work across the aisle has elevated his profile, even as it sets him apart from many in his party. During Joe Biden’s time as president, he’s also worked with Democrats on infrastructure, immigration, and the expansion of NATO.
“[He’s] a dying breed, very much John McCain-esque,” said Sarah Treul Roberts, a political scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill, alluding to the late Arizona Republican known for his independent streak.
But Tillis’s independence could come at a price.
It’s left him out of step with many in a party that, fueled by a militant populism, has shifted steadily and sharply to the right. If he runs again in 2026, he risks not only a primary challenge but the loss of part of his base in a state in which he’s never won more than 49 percent of the vote in a Senate race.
The conservative Beaufort Observer published an article headlined: “RINO Senator Thom Tillis Working to Sell Us Out on Gun Control.” (The epithet stands for “Republican In Name Only.”)
Former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, who lost a Senate primary this year to Trump-backed candidate Ted Budd, told The Assembly, “In the end [Tillis] may have the exact forces working against him that I had.”
“We’re redefining the word ‘conservative’ in our party,” McCrory said. “It’s almost like the word ‘conservatism’ doesn’t have anything to do with governance but how mad you are.”
“There aren’t that many Thom Tillises left,” said conservative commentator Bill Kristol. “Thom Tillis used to be a very typical Republican senator. … Now he’s one of the relatively few to step up and be willing to do something in a bipartisan way.”
To get an understanding of Tillis’s motivations and operating style, The Assembly interviewed two dozen people, including five current or former U.S. senators.
Tillis, who was first elected to the Senate in 2014, has plenty of Democratic critics. Many fault his record as former leader of the N.C. House at a time Republicans pushed through a controversial agenda on guns, elections, abortion, and taxes. Others point to his record in the Senate where, among other things, he voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act seven times.
On August 9, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper criticized Tillis for voting against a bill to help veterans who had been exposed to toxic chemicals, and for opposing a cap on insulin prices.
“He needs a values check,” Cooper tweeted. Tillis responded that Cooper was out of touch and supported “Joe Biden’s left-wing priorities.”
Back in Sarajevo, Tillis warned the feuding presidents about the importance of civil discourse.
“Guys, you’re taking a step back,” he recalled telling them. “Take a lesson from our country. We had disagreements … that festered and resulted in the bloodiest civil war that’s ever been fought. I hope that that’s not how this ends.”
Dean Hingson remembers the first time he met Tillis—in 2014, at a meeting of the Republican National Senatorial Committee in Washington. Tillis, then speaker of the N.C. House, walked in with a phone glued to his ear. He was giving instructions to the person on the other end, who turned out to be then-Gov. McCrory.
“It was pretty clear who was giving advice,” recalled Hingson, a veteran Capitol Hill aide. “It confirmed my later impression of Tillis as a doer. … He had another life in the private sector and came out of the state legislature which, unlike Congress, has to get things done.”
Tillis, who turns 62 at the end of this month, has never lacked confidence. And few have risen more quickly in North Carolina politics.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, he and his five siblings (including two brothers also named Thomas) led a nomadic life that brought them through a succession of rental homes and trailer parks. Their father, Thomas Sr., was a boat draftsman whose jobs took him around the South.
Tillis never went to the same elementary school two years in a row. When his family finally settled in Nashville, Tennessee, he stayed long enough to attend junior high and high school, where he was elected student body president. He says he was not “wired” to go to college, and left home at 17.
A few years later, he was working as a records clerk when he applied for a job at a Chattanooga insurance company. The manager, Estal Fain, bypassed college graduates to hire him.
“He had the can-do attitude and intelligence … I was looking for,” Fain later told The Charlotte Observer. “He readily embraced new ways of doing things. He got things done.”
As the company automated, it partnered with computer firm Wang Laboratories. Two years later, Tillis joined Wang as its manager of research and development. He soon caught the eye of Price Waterhouse, the giant accounting and consulting firm. Hired in 1990, he rose to partner in six years while also earning a bachelor’s degree from an online arm of the University of Maryland.
In 2002, as PricewaterhouseCoopers, the company sold its management-consulting arm to IBM. Tillis went with it.
By then he’d moved to Cornelius, outside Charlotte, with his wife Susan and their two children. His fight for a new bike trail (he’s an avid mountain biker) led to a seat on a parks board. He won election to the town commission in 2003. Three years later, he beat state Rep. John Rhodes, a maverick Republican rated the least effective lawmaker in the House.
Tillis left IBM and a $500,000-plus annual salary in 2009 with a mission: elect more Republicans. Armed with PowerPoint reports on House districts across the state, he put 45,000 miles on his blue pickup over the next 18 months, recruiting candidates and raising money. His party took control of the General Assembly the following year, for the first time in more than a century.
The two-term lawmaker, who’d never moved off the back row, was elected speaker.
As speaker, Tillis helped push through an ambitious conservative agenda that included tax and regulatory cuts, as well as legislation to require voter ID. (It’s now blocked in state court.) He also helped put more restrictions on abortion, and fewer on guns.
Though his party had a super-majority in 2013, Tillis sometimes worked across the aisle. He led a bipartisan effort to make North Carolina the first state to offer compensation to survivors of a state-sanctioned eugenics program, which forcibly sterilized more than 7,000 N.C. women.
“He was not as interested in deeply divisive social issues,” said former Democratic state Rep. Rick Glazier, one of his party’s most liberal lawmakers. “He was more interested in the economy of the state. … He stopped a lot of very harsh bills and tried to find a path where there was some consensus on bills that did pass.”
Glazier, now executive director of the nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center, found Tillis easy to work with. “The only thing he asked me was, ‘Don’t surprise me’,” he recalled. “[Tillis said,] ‘I know we disagree on things, but I know you try to make a bill better and more useful. And I’m appointing you to committees where you can do that’.”
Members say that despite the legislature’s turn to the right, Tillis was often a moderating influence. “Thom never legislated to the extremes. Never,” said former state Rep. Charles Jeter, a Mecklenburg County Republican. “Did we move gun legislation? Yes. Was it as ambitious or desirous as the NRA or [gun rights group] Grassroots North Carolina wanted? Absolutely not. And frankly, a large part of that was Thom.”
State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, said Tillis “was more interested in governing and governance, and some members of his caucus were more interested in throwing bombs.”
Tillis supported Amendment One, the constitutional measure that banned same-sex marriage. But he also acknowledged that social mores and laws were changing. “I think it will be repealed within 20 years,” he told an audience in 2012. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned such state bans.
Tillis recently told McClatchy that he will support a bill to codify the right to same-sex marriage.
Tillis is “probably as centrist as anybody in the Republican Party,” said David McLennan, a political scientist at Meredith College. “He demonstrated that even … when he was speaker of the House. He wasn’t a rigid ideologue.”
But that’s not what many Republicans wanted.
Red MAGA caps filled Charlotte’s Bojangles Coliseum as Tillis joined Trump and 10,000 sign-waving supporters for a rally in March 2020. Summoning Tillis to the stage, Trump called him “a tremendous supporter.” But the president acknowledged there’d been bumps along the way.
“We were going at it a little bit at the beginning,” the president told the crowd, “But I will tell you … if I didn’t get along, I would not be here.”
Some Republicans questioned Tillis’s loyalty in 2017 after he co-sponsored legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in Trump’s 2016 election. GOP leaders in North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District passed a “Resolution of Concern,” saying Tillis’s actions and statements had “shaken the confidence” of Republicans.
Then, in February 2019, Tillis wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he vowed to oppose Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a border wall. To preserve the constitution’s separation of powers, he wrote, he would vote to “curb the kind of executive overreach that Congress has allowed to fester.” Later he told The Post, “It’s never a tough vote for me when I’m standing on principle.”
Three weeks later, under intense pressure, he reversed himself and voted with Trump. But the damage was done. An April poll that year showed that Tillis’s approval among Republican voters had fallen by 12 points. Only one other GOP senator facing re-election had less support from his base. That fall, at a Trump rally in Fayetteville, some MAGA supporters greeted Tillis with boos.
“I think there are positions that the senator has taken that are not popular with every part of the Republican base,” state GOP Chairman Michael Whatley told The Assembly.
Last year, Lee County party officials scolded Tillis. “You need to stand more visibly in opposition to the current Administration and the leftists presently leading the Congress,” they wrote, “if you have any expectation of serving beyond 2026.”
“It’s acceptable to reach across the aisle in the spirit of bipartisanship when you’re not compromising on principle,” said Jim Womack, who chairs the Lee County GOP. “But when you’re compromising on principle, it’s not bipartisanship. It’s abandonment of your party.”
Tillis has heard the complaints.
“I’m happy for any of these people … who would call me a RINO [to] sit down and talk about what I’ve done over the last 12 years, 15 years,” he told The Assembly. “Pick your favorite conservatives—your biggest fire-breathing conservative. Let’s list out what their accomplishments are. I’m willing to stand by mine.”
On the night of the Uvalde shooting, Sinema strode up to McConnell on the Senate floor and implored him to do something about guns. According to The Washington Post, he told her to talk to Tillis and Cornyn.
“Thom has made it a priority to build meaningful relationships with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” McConnell said in a statement to The Assembly. “He earns their trust and respect.”
Unlike the U.S. House, the Senate needs consensus to accomplish almost anything. Because of the filibuster, 60 votes are generally needed to pass legislation. In an evenly divided chamber, that means working with the other party. Overseas trips like the Balkans visit help senators build those relationships.
“Once you get to know somebody, it’s a whole lot easier to work with them on a whole range of issues,” Shaheen, the New Hampshire Democrat, told The Assembly. “I feel like we trust each other. When [Tillis] says he’s going to do something, he does it.”
Tillis and Murphy knew each other only in passing before the trip. They bonded in part over the Balkans’ frustrating hotel plumbing. “You build that trust and you build that familiarity,” Tillis told Politico. “[And] that serves as a basis for getting accomplished what we did.”
In June, Tillis and Shaheen led a bipartisan delegation to the NATO summit in Madrid. There they learned of the disaster in San Antonio, where 51 migrants were found dead in a tractor-trailer. Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin approached Tillis about restarting negotiations on immigration reform, which Tillis agreed to do.
“Thom is a really strong conservative voice, but somebody who makes the Senate work,” Murphy said. “It is very much in vogue in the Republican conference to put political point-scoring ahead of getting things done. The worry is that folks like Tillis are very quickly becoming outnumbered.”
One time Tillis did not vote with a bipartisan majority was the bill to expand healthcare to veterans who’d been exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances. The bill passed 86-11. Tillis, who has supported veterans, said he worries about the “unintended consequences” of the bill.
“I’m concerned that the [Veterans Administration] is simply not prepared to absorb the number of claims and to provide timely care,” Tillis said in a video statement.
Colleagues say Tillis has a sense of humor and doesn’t take himself too seriously, qualities that help him make connections.
When I called for a pre-arranged interview with Tillis, a man answered and said, “Sen. Tillis’s office.” When I asked for the senator, the man said, “Just messin’ with you. This is Thom.”
Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina’s retiring senior senator, calls his junior partner Skippy. He describes Tillis as a “very laid-back guy.”
“Both of us would probably be classified as non-senatorial,” Burr said. “We tend to be a little more casual than everybody else. We tend to let things roll off our back more than others up here.”
Tillis has a tradition of naming pets after prominent conservatives. He’s named dogs Reagan, Abe, Ike, and Maggie (for former British leader Margaret Thatcher). Now his 4-year-old cocker spaniel/poodle mix is named Mitch, after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
At a retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in early 2015, Tillis and nine other freshman Republican senators gathered in a room called The Bears’ Den. Frustrated with the status quo, they saw themselves as agents for change. Later, on Capitol Hill, they borrowed the name of the room for their regular breakfasts.
Former GOP Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who was part of that class of new senators, said Tillis was quickly identified as a rising star.
“In baseball it’s ‘see ball, hit ball’, right?” Gardner said. “In politics there’s not many people who view it that way. Thom Tillis does. He sees an issue. He sees a problem and goes after it.”
Gardner said Tillis could someday join the ranks of Senate GOP leadership. “People understand where he’s coming from, because he’s going to tell you,” said Gardner. “He’s not going to hide the ball on you.”
Hingson, the former congressional aide, said, “From my perspective, the folks who are there to advance the ball are always preferable to those who just want to go on cable news and light their hair on fire.”
Tillis has little patience for the latter.
After GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina criticized Tillis and other party leaders as “establishment go-along-to-get-along Republican[s],” Tillis took the unusual step of getting involved in a GOP primary. He backed Cawthorn’s main opponent, state Sen. Chuck Edwards, and raised money for him. Cawthorn lost.
“My decision to get involved in that race was very similar to the reason why I challenged John Rhodes [in 2006],” Tillis said. “I see people talking a lot, throwing bombs, and getting nothing done. And that’s not what I want the Republican Party to stand for.”
Tillis’s relative moderation is most pronounced in contrast to his state’s GOP House delegation.
He and Burr voted to fully certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. Of the 50 Republican senators, they were among only 14 who voted for the gun bill and among 19 who voted for an infrastructure package. Tillis has said he’ll vote for the bill codifying same-sex marriage.
By contrast, Rep. Patrick McHenry was the only House Republican of the eight from North Carolina to fully certify the 2020 results. Every House Republican from the state voted against the gun bill, the marriage measure, and the infrastructure bill, which Tillis and Burr helped negotiate.
GOP Rep. Ted Budd, who with Trump’s help is trying to win the seat Burr is vacating, called the infrastructure bill a “liberal Trojan horse for a socialist agenda.”
Unlike the senators, who are elected statewide, House members are almost all elected from safely gerrymandered districts in elections dominated by a partisan base.
“[Tillis] probably looks at it the same way I have,” Burr said. “It’s voters, plural, that decide whether we come back. … There may be people on the right or people on the left that may be vehemently opposed to what he does. There are plenty of people in the middle that probably applaud his willingness to try to find a solution. I’ve never found anybody that was elected for being a roadblock to everything.”
In both of his Senate races, Tillis appeared to be in trouble, only to win narrowly. While the Republican base doesn’t necessarily love him, he’s kept just enough appeal to independent voters to win.
“The political graveyards here in North Carolina are full of people who’ve underestimated Thom Tillis,” said GOP consultant Jonathan Felts, a one-time White House political director and now top adviser to Budd.
One Democrat who has warmed to Tillis is the man he defeated in a bitter 2020 Senate race, which, at $300 million, was one of the most expensive in history. Cal Cunningham and Tillis have developed an unlikely friendship. Tillis has even sought Cunningham’s advice on some appointments to the Biden administration.
Cunningham said Tillis has adapted to the equally split Senate, where each party usually needs help from the other to get things done. “The same qualities that allow his people—and some Democrats—to call him spineless,” Cunningham said, “are the qualities that help him govern in a messy and divided America.”
The two former competitors once represented the two sides of a divided state. But one night this November, Tillis and Cunningham will share a stage in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium at UNC-Chapel Hill—not as combatants, but as speakers for a program about how to build relationships across the political divide to get things done.
Jim Morrill covered politics for The Charlotte Observer for 37 years. Follow him on Twitter @jimmorrill.