Tillis says he regrets 'divide and conquer' comments

North Carolina Senate nominee Thom Tillis (R) regrets using the phrase "divide and conquer" in 2011 while talking about people on government assistance.

"Yeah, I do," Tillis said Wednesday morning on MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown" when asked by host Chuck Todd if he regrets his choice of phrasing.

Tillis, who won the Republican primary to face Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) Tuesday night, stood behind the gist of his comments, though. 

"The frustration is that we have people that are abusing the system at the expense of us being able to do more for the people who desperately need the safety net," he said. "My point was to say we need to make it very clear, government exists to help those who cannot help themselves. And those who can need to do everything that they possibly can to let us free up those resources so that we can do better things for those who desperately need it."

Hagan's campaign has been circulating a 2011 video of Tillis saying the GOP needs to "divide and conquer" those who legitimately need government help from those who don't, hoping to recreate the fatal "47 percent" comments that damaged 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. 

"What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance," Tillis said then. "We have to show respect for that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice, in her condition, that needs help and that we should help. And we need to get those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government and say, 'At some point, you’re on your own. We may end up taking care of those babies, but we’re not going to take care of you.’ And we’ve got to start having that serious discussion."

Tillis fired back, accusing Hagan of seeking to "shift attention away from her failed record."

"When we explain what we're talking about, I believe the citizens of North Carolina agree with it," he said.

Tillis also reiterated his opposition to an increase in the federal minimum wage, while repeatedly refusing to say whether he thought North Carolina's $7.25 per hour minimum wage should be increased.

"What I want to do is create jobs that make minimum wage irrelevant," he said, calling it a "defeatist mentality" to focus on raising the minimum wage.

Hagan's campaign was quick to circulate the interview.

"So much for the 'establishment candidate.' In his first national television interview of the general election, Thom Tillis stumbled out of the gate and showed again why he is an unelectable, fringe candidate," said Hagan spokesman Chris Hayden.

— This post as updated at 11:45 a.m.

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