GOP's Tillis comes under pressure for taking on Trump

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' Trump rules out total rollback of Chinese tariffs MORE (R-N.C.) is under fire from conservative activists for supporting a Democratic effort to block President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration proposes denying work permits to asylum-seekers who illegally cross border Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Harris lead Trump in Georgia: Poll Trump officials making changes to signature drug pricing proposal, Azar says 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 MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE from any interference by Trump.

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

ADVERTISEMENT

And while House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsHouse Republicans prepare for public impeachment proceedings with mock hearing Live updates on impeachment: Schiff fires warning at GOP over whistleblower Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment 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 WalkerIntercollegiate athletics just got a two-minute warning North Carolina ruling could cost GOP House seats NCAA begins process to allow college athletes to be compensated 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 BurrGOP chairman says Senate impeachment trial could last 6-8 weeks Bottom Line GOP senator wants to know whistleblower identity if there's an impeachment trial 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 BuddNorth Carolina ruling could cost GOP House seats SEC reforms will save job creators time and money Girls Little League softball champions get invitation to White House 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 ThuneTrump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report: Public impeachment hearings to begin next week 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 McConnellMcConnell protege emerges as Kentucky's next rising star Hillicon Valley: Schumer questions Army over use of TikTok | Federal court rules against random searches of travelers' phones | Groups push for election security funds in stopgap bill | Facebook's new payment feature | Disney+ launch hit by glitches McConnell, GOP leaders say they won't be watching House impeachment hearing 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.