GOP's Tillis comes under pressure for taking on Trump

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisTillis places big ad buy as he faces wealthy GOP challenger North Carolina race raises 2020 red flags for Republicans, Democrats This week: Congress returns for first time since mass shootings MORE (R-N.C.) is under fire from conservative activists for supporting a Democratic effort to block President TrumpDonald John TrumpSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration Trump is failing on trade policy Trump holds call with Netanyahu to discuss possible US-Israel defense treaty MORE’s emergency declaration to fund his border wall.

The activists have also raised Tillis’s legislation to shield special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerFox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal MORE from any interference by Trump.

Some county GOP party leaders are openly calling for Tillis to face a primary challenge.

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And while House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMeadows, Cotton introduce bill to prevent district judges from blocking federal policy changes The Hill's Morning Report - Trump ousts Bolton; GOP exhales after win in NC Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader MORE (R-N.C.), a Trump loyalist, told The Hill he has no plans to run for the Senate, another conservative Trump ally, Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerTo boost minority serving institutions, bipartisan Future Act needs immediate action Pressure rises on Cheney to make decision NCAA urges California governor not to sign 'fair pay' bill for college athletes MORE (R-N.C.), may heed the call.

When "you have a Republican president, you expect your Republican senators to follow suit,” said Diane Parnell, the chairwoman of the Rockingham County Republican Party. “The state of North Carolina elected him to go to Washington, D.C., and support our conservative values. We want this immigration problem fixed. We want him to support our president. And we want America to remain a great country.

Parnell said she has personally urged Walker to get in the race and hopes that he takes the plunge. Walker “is the one person who has kept his promises, the one person we can depend on, and the one person who if he primaries Tillis can win.”

In an interview, Walker, a 49-year-old Baptist preacher, confirmed that he is exploring a Senate bid in North Carolina at some point.

Walker could run in 2022 to succeed retiring Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrLawmakers applaud Trump's ban on flavored e-cigarettes Trump to hold campaign rally in North Carolina day before special House election Hoekstra emerges as favorite for top intelligence post MORE (R-N.C.), but he said he “won’t rule out” a challenge against Tillis next year.

Walker also confirmed he put out a poll last month to measure the name recognition and favorability of every member of the North Carolina congressional delegation — a move Republicans viewed as a step toward a Tillis primary. The poll showed Meadows had the greatest name ID, followed by Walker.

The Walker poll asked GOP voters which they wanted their next senator to focus on: advancing the Trump agenda or local priorities, like protecting disaster aid and military construction funding. Seventy-two percent said the Trump agenda.

“North Carolina Republican primary voters have made their voices clear. They stand with the President. Our senators should as well,” Walker told The Hill.

Tillis, 58, told The Hill Wednesday that he was not aware that Walker has conducted polling. But the first-term senator and former Speaker of the North Carolina state House said he’s not concerned about competition. Raleigh businessman Garland Tucker also is eyeing a primary challenge against Tillis.

Asked if he was specifically worried about Walker jumping in the race, Tillis simply replied “no” as he hurried from his office into an elevator on his way to a Judiciary Committee hearing.

Tillis allies think Walker may be trying to stir up attention to boost his name ID in anticipation of running for Burr’s open seat in 2022.

And aside from the special counsel protection bill and the disapproval resolution, Tillis has been one of Trump’s staunchest allies in the Senate.

He voted for both of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, his effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare and his signature tax reform bill. He also voted in January against a proposal to reopen the federal government without providing additional money for the border wall.

Later Wednesday, Tillis told The Hill that voters will understand when he explains to them why he announced support for a Democratic-led resolution to disapprove of Trump’s emergency border declaration — even though he is now reconsidering his support.

“I feel like when you sit down and explain what we’re trying to do — number one, support the president because there is a crisis at the border but also do it in a way that will get the additional tens of billions of dollars that are needed to secure it,” he said as he later hustled from the committee room back to his office in the Dirksen building.

Tillis says that grabbing funds through an emergency declaration could make it more difficult to get future funding for the border through the regular appropriations process.

“Once you explain it to most reasonable-minded people, they understand that this is not in any way opposing what the president is trying to do. We just want to make sure we do it in a way that’s sustainable,” he said.

Tillis was the third Senate Republican to announce support for the disapproval resolution last month, making a big splash in a Washington Post op-ed where he argued it could open the door for future Democratic presidents to declare national emergencies to implement the Green New Deal or take over the nation’s financial institutions.

Some Republicans see Tillis’s decision to buck Trump on high-profile issues as a way to tack to the center and display independence ahead of what could be a tough 2020 general election.

But those moves haven’t endeared him to conservative Trump allies. One North Carolina GOP operative predicted: “Thom Tillis won’t be a senator after 2020. He’ll either be beat in the primary or the general election.”

Added David McIntosh, the president of the conservative outside group Club for Growth: “Due to his repeated opposition to President Trump, Tillis is in danger of becoming a dead man walking. Mark Walker, Mark Meadows, or [Rep.] Ted BuddTheodore (Ted) Paul BuddGirls Little League softball champions get invitation to White House House conservatives call for ethics probe into Joaquin Castro tweet Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess MORE would beat him in a primary.”

Feeling the heat from conservatives, Tillis is now trying to put together a deal that would allow him to vote against the disapproval resolution.

Tillis requested a meeting with Vice President Pence and Senate Republican colleagues in which they discussed a tradeoff whereby Trump would endorse legislation to reform the National Emergencies Act of 1976 in exchange for Republicans defeating the disapproval resolution, according to GOP sources briefed on the discussion.

The plan, however, seems like a long shot.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph Thune'Mike Pounce' trends on Twitter after Trump slip at GOP retreat The Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Congress set to ignore Trump's wall request in stopgap measure MORE (S.D.) said Wednesday he would be “really surprised” if “on an outright vote there would be the votes to defeat it.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration GOP group's ad calls on Graham to push for election security: 'Are you still trying?' Harris keeps up 'little dude' attack on Trump after debate MORE (R-Ky.) will bring the disapproval resolution to the floor on Thursday, and Tillis says his vote will now depend on the outcome of negotiations with Trump and Pence.

“It’s really a work in progress,” he said, adding that his vote is “still a part of the discussions we’re having with the White House.”

Tillis is also defending his support for legislation protecting the special counsel as a smart policy to check the power of the executive branch.

“I’ve never felt like it was a Mueller protection bill. I felt like it was a special counsel bill that will have enduring value,” he said.

Tillis has faced heat in the past from home-state conservatives.

The Rockingham County GOP sent a letter of “no confidence” to Tillis two years ago, warning: “It appears you’re supporting Obama’s [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and another phony immigration compromise, and we are appalled.”

The Craven County GOP also voted to censure Tillis that year, said its then-chairman, Carl Mischka. Now GOP chairman of North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, Mischka said Republicans along North Carolina’s coast are closely watching whether Tillis lines up behind Trump on the emergency declaration.

“If Tillis would back the president on this issue, he will once again win the hearts of eastern North Carolina,” Mischka said.