The Speaker’s speaker --
Written by John Deem
Her husband, North Carolina Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, had just announced he was seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Kay Hagan. Susan Tillis knew she’d be involved in her husband’s campaign, but this race would be far different than his three State House races.
“When this all started, I didn’t know what my role would be,” Susan Tillis said by phone Monday afternoon as she and her husband drove from a campaign stop in Winston-Salem to another in Lumberton before heading back to Raleigh.
“Now Thom jokes about it,” she said. “He says, ‘When people used to call, they wanted me. Now they just ask for Susan.’”
It’s a role Susan Tillis has embraced.
“I don’t know that I’ve been to every single county in the state,” she said, “but it’s close.”
In what is projected to be the most expensive non-presidential race in U.S. history, the demands on the Tillises have, at times, been overwhelming. Tillis says she and her husband get to spend about one night a week at their Huntersville home. If he wins on Nov. 4, they may be spending even less time there.
‘Most vilified candidate’
But, in what also is being called the nation’s most negative political race ever, being busy has unintended advantages. While the rest of us are deluged with television attack ads aimed at both candidates, the Tillises rarely have time to sit in front of a television.
That doesn’t mean Susan Tillis doesn’t know what others are saying about her husband, of course.
“Thom is the most vilified candidate,” she said.
But she also realizes that such attention means her husband is a legitimate threat to take the Senate seat from Hagan, who beat GOP incumbent Elizabeth Dole in 2008.
“When you know the man Thom is, it doesn’t bother me,” Tillis said of the attack ads from the Hagan campaign and national political action committees that have pumped tens of millions of dollars into advertising for the North Carolina race (as have pro-Tillis groups attacking Hagan). “I just keep doing my job.”
She added that the most recent legislative session, which was at times combative and sparked weekly protests at (and sometimes inside) the State House building, actually helped steel the Tillises for what was to come in the Senate race.
“In some ways, we’ve been ready for the onslaught,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy for some of our friends, though. It’s probably harder for them to watch (the attack ads). We’ll be glad when they’re not airing because people are sick of them.”
That doesn’t mean every political spouse can dismiss mudslinging so easily, and Tillis has some advice for those who are more sensitive to the attacks.
“Don’t read the newspaper and don’t read social media if it upsets you because it takes you out of your game,” she said.
On the campaign trail for her husband, Susan Tillis has had the chance to meet some of the most-influential political and media figures. The most interesting?
“I’d have to say Ben Stein,” she said of the actor/comedian/economist/commentator, with whom she and her husband shared a private dinner. “He’s very smart. I was impressed with his thought process and the way he engaged with us.”
And, she said, with the sneakers he wore with his suit and tie.
“I was hoping he wouldn’t ask me a question,” Tillis admitted.
Political spouses take on their own roles. Susan Tillis sees hers as humanizing her husband.
“I try to share a side of Thom they don’t see on television,” she said.
And what is her husband’s other side? “He’s very funny,” she said. “And he’d much rather be in shorts and a T-shirt. He’d much rather be riding his mountain bike.”
But Susan Tillis also is quick to note that while she chose to be deeply involved in her husband’s campaign, that kind of arrangement might not work for everyone.
“I would never, ever want a (political) spouse to feel like they have to follow a particular path,” she said. “I just felt like it was my duty and my job to do this.”