CHARLOTTE — They spoke one after another at a tea party meeting at an upscale pub — conservative voters and activists vowing to derail Republican Thom Tillis’ run for U.S. Senate because, as state House speaker, he muscled through a toll road project.
“Since the creation of the automobile until this point, there [haven’t] been toll roads [in North Carolina],” conservative activist Chuck Suter said at the meeting, which is an offshoot of the Charlotte Tea Party. “We would expect this to come from Democrats.”
“I don’t want to send him to D.C,” fumed Mary Amstrong, a businesswoman and Republican voter who regularly attends the weekly meeting at the Dilworth Neighborhood Grille. “Based on what [Mr. Tillis] is doing to us in North Carolina, I don’t want to give him any more power.”
The anti-toll road uprising that is frustrating Mr. Tillis’ run reflects a national movement against tolls, which conservatives decry as the latest big government intrusion. Unfortunately for Mr. Tillis, the uprising in North Carolina is centered in bedroom communities in the Lake Norman region north of Charlotte that includes Mr. Tillis’ base of support in his state House district.
Mr. Tillis has largely ignored the toll road issue and the tea party activists that oppose him. His campaign strategy has consisted of adopting moderate positions and flooding the radio and TV airwaves with ads that tie incumbent Democrat Kay R. Hagan to President Obama, who is extremely unpopular in the Tar Heel State.
But the backlash highlights Mr. Tillis’ weakness with the Republican base and helps explain why he consistently trails in the polls behind Mrs. Hagan, who was supposed to be one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats this year.
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With two weeks until the election, Mrs. Hagan led Mr. Tills 47 percent to 44 percent in a Public Policy Polling survey this week. The 3-point lead was within the poll’s margin of error, but nearly every poll for the last two months has put Mrs. Hagan in front. Mrs. Hagan leads Mr. Tillis by the same 3-point margin with or without Libertarian Sean Haugh in the matchup, a sign that his role as a potential spoiler is diminishing.
The consensus at the meeting was that they didn’t care if defeating Mr. Tillis sent Mrs. Hagan back to Washington and foiled Senate Republicans’ quest for a net gain of six seats to seize majority control of the upper chamber this year.
“He doesn’t think he needs us,” said Catherine Oxford, treasurer for the tea party group.
The North Carolina toll road project is a public-private partnership — sometimes called a P3 — to build and operate a mix of tolls and high-occupancy lanes on a 26-mile stretch of I-77 from Charlotte north to Mooresville in the Lake Norman region.
The state has signed a contract with Cintra, a Spanish company that will operate the lanes for profit. Road construction could begin by spring.
The same type of road projects that would add tolls or “hot lanes” to existing highways are being promoted by President Obama as an alternative to tapping limited federal highway funds. Those plans are greeted with skepticism in Congress and from governors across the country, including Democratic governors in Virginia, Vermont and West Virginia.
SEE ALSO: Tillis blasts Hagan for missing committee meetings, briefing on Islamic State
The activists said the toll roads were not only a government power grab and money-making scheme — critics predict tolls as high as $20 for a roundtrip commute — but also an example of Mr. Tillis’ bullying leadership style. They complained that opponents of the toll roads were shut out of the debate in the state capital of Raleigh, as he forced through the project by strong-arming and intimidating fellow lawmakers and citizens.
“He doesn’t deserve to win,” said Mary Lou Richardson, a longtime Republican Party activist in the Lake Norman area who once campaigned for Mr. Tillis and was his guest at his swearing in as speaker in 2011.
“He was our friend. That’s the hardest part of it,” she told The Washington Times. “It’s very disappointing to work for someone for six years and find out he’s not who we thought he was.”
The irony wasn’t lost on the tea party crowd in Charlotte that Mr. Tillis, who has made opposition to Mr. Obama the centerpiece of his campaign, is on the same page as the president when it comes to toll roads.
Ms. Armstrong said that if Mr. Tillis is elected, he will join other pro-toll lawmakers in Washington and then “we are doomed, because the P3 toll lanes are an Obama agenda.”
The toll road issue and conservative opposition to Mr. Tillis have prompted a write-in campaign by former state Rep. John Rhodes, which will bleed some support from Mr. Tillis.
Mr. Tillis ousted Mr. Rhodes from his state House seat in 2006 to begin his rise to power in Raleigh.
Mr. Rhodes insisted that he isn’t running for revenge.
“It’s not about a personal beef [as much as it is] I hate to see an elected official use their power to hurt citizens and to abuse their power and to intimidate folks,” he said.
Before his write-in campaign, Mr. Rhodes had filed four ethics complaints against Mr. Tillis alleging campaign finance irregularities, cronyism and abuse of power.
“They say who’s going to save us from Kay Hagan and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid. I say, ‘Who’s going to save us from Thom Tillis?’” said Mr. Rhodes.
The Tillis campaign did not respond to questions about the toll roads.