Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reportedly tapped Wall Street ally Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) to join his leadership team as a counselor, elevating the bipartisan dealmaker — and strong fundraiser — within the ranks of an increasingly partisan Congress.
North Carolina voters elected the former House speaker of the state’s General Assembly to the U.S. Senate in 2014. His 2020 reelection bid was the most expensive Senate race in history until the Georgia U.S. Senate contests advanced to a runoff that cycle. Tillis’ campaign reported raising $25.3 million ahead of his 2-point victory, with top contributors including Wall Street banks and private investment funds.
Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with GOP Senate leadership, poured $47.1 million into his contentious reelection race against Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. The super PAC bankrolled a TV ad attacking Cunningham over an extramarital affair that came out just weeks before the general election.
The second term senator has helped broker prominent bipartisan bills, including the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill passed in December that protects same-sex and interracial marriage, and the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, breaking decades of partisan gridlock on gun control legislation in the wake of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Tillis told Punchbowl News that he hopes to find a legislative path forward on immigration reform and border security.
Tillis, the ranking member of the Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, has also paved the way for regulatory and legislative moves that benefit his top contributors on Wall Street.
The securities and investment industry has been a top contributor to Tillis’ Senate campaigns, according to OpenSecrets data. Tillis’ campaign reported receiving $2.4 million from individuals in the securities and investment industry since 2013 and another $288,350 from industry PACs.
Individuals affiliated with the real estate industry — another top contributor – collectively gave Tillis’ campaigns $2.2 million since 2013, while PACs affiliated with the industry gave $136,000. His campaigns also reported receiving $836,185 from the commercial banking industry, $709,157 from the private equity industry and $328,398 from hedge funds through the same period.
The top five contributors to his 2020 reelection campaign were individuals and PACs affiliated big banks and Wall Street firms, including $93,286 from Blackstone Group, $78,155 from Truist Financial, $58,475 from Goldman Sachs, $57,890 from Bank of America and $57,294 from Wells Fargo. All five companies contributed heavily to U.S. senators serving on the Senate Banking Committee, according to OpenSecrets data.
At the Senate Banking Committee’s “Annual Oversight of the Nation’s Largest Banks” hearing on Sept. 20, 2022, Tillis decried “partisan bills” and executive orders that he claimed have added $201 billion in regulatory costs and 131 million hours of new paperwork during the first year of the Biden administration. That number appears to come from a report from the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank and sister organization to the “dark money” group American Action Network, which spends tens of millions of dollars promoting Republican congressional candidates each cycle without disclosing the source of their funds.
“I, for one, think that we need fewer regulations in this space,” Tillis told his colleagues and the panel of CEOs from the biggest banks in the country. Forecasting a recession in 2023 — as are two-thirds of economists at 23 large financial institutions doing business directly with the Federal Reserve — Tillis said people “are going to suffer from the policies coming from this body, not what you all are doing.”
Tillis, who once defended financial giant Goldman Sachs as a firm that probably employs “a lot of little guys,” has been a vocal critic of regulations imposed on Wall Street banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
In 2018, Tillis introduced legislation that would have directed the Securities and Exchange Commission to expand the definition of accredited investors. Sludge reported it would pave the way for Wall Street to raise more money by expanding opportunities to less-wealthy investors.
While the legislation did not pass, the SEC voted to change the definition in December 2019 after Tillis and six GOP colleagues sent a letter to then-SEC Chairman Jay Clayton asking him to expand the definition of accredited investor. Blackstone also sent letters to the SEC encouraging the definition change, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Tillis’ aides told Bloomberg in 2019 that the senator’s pro-bank views are all about helping North Carolina, which is home to several banks including the principal executive offices of Bank of America. The outlet also reported that Tillis’ father was a longtime board member of BB&T, also based in North Carolina, serving as chairman for more than a decade.
A spokesperson for Tillis did not return OpenSecrets’ request for comment.
Tills was also a top recipient of contributions from the payday lender industry during the 2020 election cycle, with an influx of donations coming after he defended the industry from allegations payday lenders may prey upon those hit by unemployment, eviction, medical bills and other hardships during the coronavirus pandemic.
During a March 10, 2020, Senate Banking Committee hearing, Tillis warned against “overreach” and “painting with a broad brush” when it comes to the industry he described as a lifeline when he was a child. Four major payday lenders contributed more than $20,000 to Tillis’ campaign within days of the hearing, the Daily Beast reported. Payday lenders aggressively pitched their products through online advertising, although federal relief helped curb demand for many low-income Americans impacted by the pandemic.
Tillis was also the top recipient of contributions from the tobacco industry during the 2020 election cycle. The North Carolina senator was the second biggest beneficiary of lobbyist contributions that cycle.
During the 2022 election cycle, Tillis’ leadership PAC, Together Holding Our Majority PAC, reported raking in $1 million. Over two-thirds of the $977,355 spent went toward fundraising, and the leadership PAC made another $234,955 in contributions. That included $10,000 each to Republican challengers Herschel Walker in Georgia and Adam Laxalt in Nevada, and $5,000 each to Republican challengers Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Blake Masters in Arizona, the four races rated toss-ups by the Cook Political Report.
Tillis also played a pivotal role in primarying former Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) in the 2022 midterms. Tillis backed Republican state Sen. Chuck Edwards in the 11th Congressional District GOP primary and reportedly headlined a fundraiser for Edwards three weeks before the primary, which Edwards went on to win.