RALEIGH — The legislature stands in the rearview mirror for Thom Tillis after four years as one of North Carolina state government’s most powerful politicians.
After defeating Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in November in the nation’s most expensive U.S. Senate campaign — calculated at $114 million by the Sunlight Foundation — Tillis has now turned his eyes to Capitol Hill.
The outgoing House speaker cleaned out his Legislative Building corner office and set up shop in temporary Washington office space. He’s picked key staff members, learned committee assignments — armed services, veteran affairs and agriculture among them — and found an apartment nearby. He’ll take the oath of office Jan. 6, although his six-year term officially begins three days earlier.
Tillis sat down with The Associated Press for a December interview in Raleigh. He talked about expected 2015 issues, the 2014 campaign and his likely legislative successor. Questions and answers were edited for length and AP style.
Q: Where do you think your policy interests will lie? Do you have a first bill you expect to file?
A: I think most of my focus will be very similar to our focus when we first came into the legislature — get the regulatory environment back to a level where the cost of doing business and the uncertainty is reduced, because I believe that will create an improvement in the economy that then makes tax reform and a number of the other things that we want to do more likely to be achieved.
Q: An issue in the fall campaign was whether you believed ground troops would be needed in the Middle East as the end-game strategy to combat the Islamic State. Have you thought about that anymore?
A: What we’ve said is that there’s a difference between having American presence advising those on the front lines that do not have to be Americans. I think that the Middle East partners have to play a role in protecting their security but I do think that American expertise is important. And you see when we create a vacuum like we did in Iraq, that’s how we got to the point where we’re having to have this discussion.
Q: Given the president’s executive action on immigration in November, do you feel more or less confident there will be a comprehensive immigration overhaul?
A: We need to not overcomplicate the issue. We need to first and foremost have a credible strategy for sealing the border. What the president has done has actually made that task even more challenging because by saying that he can grant amnesty — at least temporary amnesty to some 3 to 5 (million) already here illegally present — he’s sending a signal to those who have not yet come here that maybe if you get here you’ll be afforded the same treatment. So I think it’s going to create more pressure, make the situation on the border more dangerous.
Q: What are the chances that we will see significant changes to the president’s health care overhaul during the next congressional session?
A: When you talk about repeal, you also have to think about things that we believe we can do because they make sense and they don’t break the budget. But even that sort of bill would be vetoed by the president. I would vote for that kind of bill. Whether or not that will come up I think remains to be seen. I think what you’ll see fairly quickly are legislative actions to repeal the medical device tax, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, you will see the delay or repeal of certain mandates … because they are having negative consequences on small businesses, so you can start to systematically repeal some of the most onerous provisions of the ACA before you’ve got support to replace it entirely.
Q: What do you think was the turning point in the campaign, or why you won?
A: We just managed even as a challenger to stay on strategy, to not let our strategy be affected by the tens of millions of dollars that were being spent against us. We just ran a very disciplined campaign. We knew where the voters were, we knew what they were responding to and I think that we just stayed on message.
Q: You’ve probably talked to (likely 2015-16 state House speaker) Tim Moore. What advice have you given him?
A: When you’ve got a (House Republican) caucus as big as ours, communication with the caucus is vitally important but then discipline — stay focused on things I think that most North Carolinians would agree on and stay away from the things that just create unnecessary controversy. And then working with (Senate leader Phil) Berger and working with (Gov. Pat McCrory) — the people of North Carolina expect us to work together.