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Sen. Thom Tillis, Cal Cunningham on friendship, politics

Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, left, and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. greet each other after a televised debate Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C.

Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, left, and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. greet each other after a televised debate Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C.


Stop anyone on the street and ask them to name off a pair of famous friends. A list of people might come to mind:

  • Lucy and Ethel;
  • Bert and Ernie;
  • Joey and Chandler.

But Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham?

It turns out the former political rivals are pals, dating back to the 2020 election that pitted the two North Carolina candidates against each other in a highly competitive U.S. Senate race.

The unexpected friendship took people by surprise when it was announced that Tillis, the Republican who won the election, and Cunningham, a Democrat, would come together at UNC-Chapel Hill to discuss “how to build and maintain friendships across the political divide.”

Tillis told the audience Thursday night that the public had no idea during the campaign that they had become friends behind the scenes.

“At debates we would exchange pleasantries, beat the tar out of each other for an hour, go to the car and say, ‘Sorry man, I’ll see you in a couple of weeks,’” Tillis said.

Meanwhile, the election was making national headlines, and not just because of what the winner would mean to the Senate’s balance of power.

Tillis, then the incumbent, and Cunningham made history by having the most expensive Senate race in the country’s history. Poll results during the campaign season indicated Cunningham could defeat Tillis.

But just weeks out from the election, Tillis came down with COVID-19, and news broke that Cunningham had an affair. Tillis thought his inability to campaign due to the virus would be the death knell to his election, but the affair was too much for Cunningham to overcome. Tillis took home 48.69% of the vote to Cunningham’s 46.94%.

Once the election was over, though, the two remained in touch.

Two days after the midterm elections, they answered a wide range of questions as part of the Abbey Speakers Series, which is held four times a year at UNC-Chapel Hill to “foster productive dialogue on timely issues across a range of perspectives.”

Here’s what we learned.

A friendship is born

Cunningham said he had the idea to maintain a friendship with Tillis off the campaign trail and pitched the idea to him as he rounded the corner at a debate. He told Tillis they should get together over barbecue and talk about what life was like on the campaign trail and their policy positions. Tillis agreed.

Tillis said 80% of the attack ads against them were created by outside groups and did not reflect how they felt about one another. But the public didn’t realize that.

He added that in commercial breaks of debates, they would joke back and forth with one another. Cunningham said it confused the moderators.

When Cunningham called Tillis to concede the election, he reminded him: “I meant what I said, that win, lose or draw, we should get together.”

Breakfast at Big Ed’s

Tillis explained the absurdity that ensued two months later when they did just that at Big Ed’s Restaurant in downtown Raleigh’s City Market, known to be frequented by those in North Carolina’s political scene looking for some classic country food.

“It was really funny, because when you have around $300 million spent on you, people are going to recognize your face,” Tillis said.

Tillis said a woman came up to their table to confirm it was them and then asked for a picture.

“She said, ‘I texted my husband that you two are having breakfast and he says he doesn’t believe me,’” Tillis said.

Cunningham’s barbecue bluster

Cunningham says he does know what barbecue is. In September 2020, Cunningham’s Twitter account showed a photo of him in front of a gas grill with the caption: “There’s nothing better than BBQ — except for winning this Senate seat, of course.”

If you know anything about barbecue, you know that picture is all wrong, and Cunningham took a lot of heat for the picture.

“God bless my out-of-state staff,” Cunningham said.

When Tillis saw the post, he said he told his staff not to respond but to sit back and watch.

Social media delivered.

Tillis’ favorite barbecue?

Tillis was asked his favorite kind of barbecue. As any good North Carolina politician would, he deflected. Sort of.

Or he presented a new recipe. He told the audience he like a fusion of all three types of North Carolina’s barbecues mixed together by taking about one-third of each.

“It’s my bipartisan solution,” Tillis said to audience laughter.

Candidates need experience

It’s no secret that Tillis and N.C. Rep. Madison Cawthorn do not get along. The 27-year-old freshman Congressman has been a thorn in Tillis’ side since being sworn in in 2021. When he won at the age of 25, he was the youngest member of Congress in modern history.

While Tillis did not mention Cawthorn by name, he seemed to be talking about him when he told the audience that a candidate shouldn’t run for their first public office after graduation.

He offered some advice: Get a job, gain real world experience and volunteer on local government boards. Then, when you run for office, you will understand how and why the policy being worked on will impact people.

Listen to one another

Tillis has worked on a lot of bipartisan bills and said he is willing to sit down and work on policy with people he might now agree with.

He said if someone serving a six-year term is too worried about their next election to get good policy created, there is a problem.

Tillis cited his relationship with Rep. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, who he met on a week-long trip due to their roles in Congress.

He said they never spoke about policy during the trip, but when the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, left 19 elementary school students and two teachers dead, they already had built a relationship. This allowed them to work across the aisle and accomplish what Tillis called one of the largest pieces of gun legislation this generation.

Tillis said he and Murphy talked over what policy positions would prevent the bill from passing. They ditched those ideas and created a bill they knew the two parties could agree on.

Tillis said Cunningham has become someone he will call to understand the opposing view on policy issues.

“It’s OK to disagree,” Cunningham said. “But we need to find a way to actively affirm that we all have a voice…”

Think before you tweet

Tillis said that society has a part to play in the vitriol happening in politics right now.

“You see a lot of behavior driven by leaders is a reaction to something that has surfaced up on social media,” Tillis said. “I just ask people that before you press send, or tweet or snap, ask yourself, ‘Would you sit in front of a room like this and say the same sort of thing, with the same sort of tone.?’”

He added people are too quick to make judgments. Do homework, call campaign offices, call lawmakers’ offices and ask the proper questions.

Tillis he will never forget the time he sent a Facebook message with a link to his “resignation,” and within 45 minutes his resignation from office was all over the news. He said if anyone had bothered to click the link, they would have found that he had written that he had “resigned himself” to that fact that no one would take the time to read the first paragraph of his letter. It wasn’t a resignation from office.

This story was originally published November 10, 2022 9:54 PM.

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