GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - Republican delegates in North Carolina voted Saturday at their annual convention to censure Thom Tillis, the state’s senior U.S. senator, for supporting policies they said violate key tenets of the GOP platform.
As Sen. Tillis has gained influence in Congress for his willingness to work across the aisle, his record on LGBTQ+ rights, immigration and gun violence has raised concerns among some state Republicans that the senator has strayed from conservative values.
Several delegates in Greensboro criticized Tillis, who has held his seat in the Senate since 2015, for his work last year on the Respect For Marriage Act, which enshrined protections for same-sex and interracial marriages in federal law.
Both the state and national GOP platforms oppose same-sex marriage. But Tillis, who had opposed it earlier in his political career, was among the early supporters of the law who lobbied his GOP colleagues in Congress to vote in favor of it.
Others criticized him for challenging former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and for supporting a measure that provided funds for red flag laws, which allow state courts to authorize the temporary removal of firearms from people who they believe might pose a danger to themselves or others.
The North Carolina senator initially opposed Trump’s plan to use military construction dollars to build a wall along the nation’s southern border, but he eventually shifted his position.
Tillis spokesperson Daniel Keylin defended the senator’s voting record, writing in an email to The Associated Press that he "keeps his promises and delivers results."
"He will never apologize for his work passing the largest tax cut in history, introducing legislation to secure the border and end sanctuary cities, delivering desperately-needed funding to strengthen school safety and protecting the rights of churches to worship freely based on their belief in traditional marriage," Keylin said.
While the vote Saturday, which took place behind closed doors, cannot remove Tillis from office, supporters said they hope it sends a firm message of dissatisfaction. A two-thirds majority of the state party’s 1,801 voting delegates was needed for the resolution to pass, party spokesperson Jeff Moore said.
"We need people who are unwavering in their support for conservative ideals," said Jim Forster, an 81-year-old delegate from Guilford. "His recent actions don’t reflect the party’s shift to the right — in fact, they’re moving in the exact wrong direction."
Several state legislators, including Sen. Bobby Hanig of Currituck County, criticized the decision, saying it’s a bad idea to create more divisions within the party ahead of an election year when party unity will be paramount.
"I believe that a mob mentality doesn’t do us any good," Hanig said. "Senator Tillis does a lot for North Carolina, he does a lot for the coastal communities, so why would I want to make him mad?"
State Sen. Jim Burgin of Harnett County said the vote to censure Tillis sets a dangerous precedent and does not allow enough flexibility for individual interpretation of party values.
Burgin questioned whether his own vote last month for North Carolina’s 12-week abortion ban would similarly put him at risk of being censured because it’s out of line with the Republican platform, which states that life begins at conception.
"I don’t think we need to be attacking our own," he said. ""You don’t shoot your own elephants."
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.