Politics & Government

Tillis plans to vote against national emergency. Has he opened path for a challenger?

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis’ decision not to support President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration has so angered some North Carolina Republicans that they are considering potential primary opponents in 2020.

Tillis, a first-term Republican who previously served as speaker of the N.C. House, announced his intent to vote for a Democratic-backed resolution of disapproval against Trump’s emergency declaration in a Washington Post op-ed, a high-profile rebuke. Tillis is one of four Republicans to publicly state their intent to vote for the resolution, likely setting up the first veto of Trump’s presidency.

Neither the House nor the Senate is likely to have the votes to override the veto, making the debate largely a political and potentially embarrassing one. But it’s high-profile enough that it could have ramifications for 2020 — potentially exposing Tillis to a primary challenge from his right or, conversely, helping Tillis show independence in what is expected to be a tough, expensive general election.

“We’re not happy with the way Senator Tillis seems not to support the president,” said Diane Parnell, chairwoman of the Rockingham County Republican Party. “We’re looking to see who is coming to primary him.”

Parnell said her group sent a letter of “no confidence” to Tillis and the state party about two years ago, but decided to keep that criticism private. After Tillis’ public declaration about his vote on the national emergency, Parnell and the Rockingham County Republican Party posted Facebook messages telling constituents to call Tillis and urge him to support Trump.

“The American people stand behind President Trump. We stand behind those conservative values. I don’t understand,” she said. “We felt as American people it was time to step up. You elected Republicans need to do what these people sent you to D.C. to do. We work hard on these elections.”

Tillis defended his decision, saying he has been consistent on the issue of executive power since his 2014 race when he complained about President Barack Obama legislating with a “pen and phone.” Tillis also said he worries about the precedent Trump’s call might set for a future Democratic president.

“This dates back to the concern that I had when I was campaigning in 2014,” Tillis told reporters at the Capitol last week. “I agree with the need for about $25 billion to go down there. I just don’t think this is the right sustainable path, and I do believe Congress has to play a part in it.”

FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2018, file photo, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., walks from the hearing room during a break during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Republican senators up for re-election in 2020 are trying to figure out how closely to align themselves with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File) Carolyn Kaster AP

That nuanced position — one echoed by several prominent Republicans in the Senate, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — is up against Trump’s clear directive: Build the wall.

Trump declared a national emergency on Feb. 15 after failing to secure enough funding for the border wall in compromise legislation that passed the House and Senate. Trump signed the bill rather than force a second government shutdown, just weeks after a 35-day shutdown.

“It looks like you’re putting yourself in opposition to the president,” said Jim Womack, chairman of the Lee County Republican Party and a candidate for chairman of the state GOP. “Tillis can be intellectually honest all day long, but messaging matters.”

Womack said Tillis would have been better off not taking a public stand and simply voting.

“There’s a way to say everything. That’s my advice,” Womack said. “The messaging is not crystal clear. The optics are being used by the Democrats to say there is division in the Republican Party.”

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Tillis tried to draw a distinction between his broad support for Trump’s border security initiatives and his opposition to the specific tactic of declaring a national emergency to secure wall funding.

Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page said he knows Tillis’ position, but “that’s where I differ.” Page appeared at a Feb. 11 event at the White House with sheriffs from around the country.

“I can’t see any senator or congressman — Republican, Democrat or independent — that would not support protecting our nation starting at our borders. I can’t fathom that,” he said. “From a public safety perspective, I cannot see Senator Tillis’ rationale for not standing with the president in his initiative.”

“I do not have a lot of confidence in Senator Tillis based on his decision not to stand with the president.”

Womack said he’s certain there will be a primary challenge to Tillis, but put the odds of a credible political challenge at 50-50. It would take a huge financial windfall to challenge Tillis, who served as finance chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2018 cycle and ended 2018 with more than $2 million cash on hand, according to FEC filings.

At the moment, no Republican has announced a challenge to Tillis. Two Democrats — Mecklenburg County commissioner Trevor Fuller and state Sen. Erica Smith — have joined the field, but neither is a big enough name to keep out other challengers. Time is not on the side of a Tillis GOP challenger. The primary will be held March 3, 2020, less than a year away.

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But this decision, combined with other moves like co-sponsoring a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller, have opened the door for challengers, said Rep. Mark Walker, a Greensboro Republican. Walker said he heard from many Republicans after Tillis’ decision on the national emergency, saying it could have been handled better.

“Voting with the Democrats on something this important, I don’t see where that helps him,” said Walker, who considers Tillis a good friend.

Walker demurred when asked if he could be the person to challenge Tillis.

“I’m not suggesting that at all at this point,” he said. “I think he’s opened the door, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you that that’s me.”

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Tillis, a former Cornelius town commissioner, came to the N.C. House after his 2006 election with a reputation as a moderate. But as speaker from 2010 to 2014, critics — and some supporters — said he took the state in a sharply right direction. Tillis defeated Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in their 2014 Senate race, at the time the most expensive in U.S. history, 48.8 percent to 47.2 percent.

Tillis’ campaign consultant Jordan Shaw — who worked for Tillis for seven years in a variety of roles, including campaign manager in 2014 and chief of staff in his Senate office — said the senator’s conservative credentials are not in question.

“Thom Tillis is the architect of the conservative revolution in North Carolina,” said Shaw, who works for OnMessage, a political media firm that works with Republican candidates. “He laid a lot of of the groundwork for what has gone on in this state for conservatives in the past 10 years now. Look at his body of work. It’s hard to find anybody in the state who has done more for conservative causes in terms of results than Thom Tillis.”

Tillis backers will point to his record of standing with Trump on important votes.

A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Tillis was a staunch defender of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his controversial confirmation process and has backed all of Trump’s judicial nominees. Tillis has voted with Trump more than 94 percent of the time, according to a metric developed by FiveThirtyEight.com, a score that puts him in the top 20 among Republican senators.

Former Tillis staffer Robert Wilkie is now the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and former Tillis chief of staff Ray Starling is now the chief of staff to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

The decision to create some daylight with the president on this issue could help him show his independence in a general election — something that’s clearly a point of emphasis in recent weeks. His office has sent out more than two dozen emails touting bipartisan legislation, letters or calls he has been a part of since Jan. 1 — everything from Hurricane Florence relief to establishing a Human Rights Commission to encouraging more IPOs.

“Thom is consistent. He’s going to make waves on the far right and the far left because he believes in getting things done,” Shaw said. “I would ask those folks on the right frustrated with this position, if they approved of these kind of actions when Obama was doing it. The answer is no. If you’re going to be conservative, you need to be consistent.”

Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.