Cornelius, N.C. — Hours after celebrating his victory in a bitter U.S. Senate race, Thom Tillis extended an olive branch on Wednesday, saying he hopes to work with Senate Democrats and calling for more transparency in campaign funding and advertising.
Tillis, the Republican speaker of the state House, defeated Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan by 49 to 47 percent in a race fueled by enough negative ads from outside groups and the candidates themselves to become the most expensive campaign nationwide, at more than $111 million.
The victory helped the GOP seize the majority in the Senate, which together with their control of the U.S. House, changing the dynamic in Washington, D.C., for President Barack Obama's final two years in office.
Tillis said Republican control of Congress makes it imperative to reach across the aisle so Democrats feel they are part of the legislative process. He likened it to his first two terms in the state House, when Republicans were in the minority, and he learned to work with Democrats on legislation.
"I will absolutely have a priority on building relationships with members of my caucus but also the minority caucus so we can do things differently," he said during a news conference in his hometown of Cornelius. "I want to come back here next year and talk to people about the bipartisan things we accomplished for the good of the nation – not just campaign rhetoric, but now I have a responsibility and a priority on putting some substance behind those words from campaign speeches."
He said his first item of business on Capitol Hill will be clearing the backlog of legislation passed by the U.S. House that has languished in the Senate, and he said he hopes Obama works with Congress on bills lawmakers plan to send to him.
"I hope that the president will be willing to come to the table with the House and Senate members and work on these things," he said. "He can leave a legacy of some bipartisanship. It hasn't been that way the past couple of years, and I would like for this Congress to actually establish a reputation for governing. In order to govern, you're going to have to work across the aisle."
Tillis attributed his victory, in part, to opposition to Obama's policies among North Carolina voters.
"It was largely a referendum on President Obama's track record over the last six years," he said. "I think there were votes for me, but I think there were also votes against President Obama, and Sen. Hagan having supported President Obama 96 percent of the time."
Despite his call for bipartisanship, he said he still plans to vote for any legislation that would repeal the Affordable Care Act – Obama's signature health care law – and work on delaying portions of the law, such as mandates for businesses with 50 or more workers to provide employee health coverage.
"If we can delay them and replace them with something more sustainable, that's what we'll ultimately need to focus on," he said. "What we need to do is get to health care reform that solves the problems for some 30 million Americans who just need help and get away from the issue we have right now with some 250 million Americans being destabilized – having their insurance policies canceled, having to pay more out-of-pocket expense."
With the election over, Tillis said he was looking forward to watching television commercials for cars and toothpaste and no longer seeing his face on campaign ads – and hearing allegations against him of wrongdoing. He said he would like to see more transparency from outside groups airing ads during campaigns in hopes it would lessen the negative nature of the spots.
"I think it is important to see where the source is coming from," he said. "It's more important just to know who's funding the races rather than setting some sort of caps on how much money they can spend."
Voters "probably became numb to" attack ads after a while, he said, and they need to engage more in campaigns to learn about candidates and issues before heading to the polls.
"I would like to see more focus on what the candidate stands for and less focus on what were a lot of false attacks," he said.