GOP's Tillis comes under pressure for taking on Trump

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisHillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Lawmakers ask for briefings on Chinese targeting of coronavirus research Republicans push for help for renewable energy, fossil fuel industries MORE (R-N.C.) is under fire from conservative activists for supporting a Democratic effort to block President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump in new ad: 'The death toll is still rising.' 'The president is playing golf' Brazil surpasses Russia with second-highest coronavirus case count in the world Trump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' MORE’s emergency declaration to fund his border wall.

The activists have also raised Tillis’s legislation to shield special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 MeadowsHillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal Trump threatens to withhold Michigan, Nevada funding over mail-in voting Democrats launch probe into Trump's firing of State Department watchdog, Pompeo 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 WalkerJohn Ratcliffe is the right choice for director of national intelligence — and for America NCAA backs plan to allow college athletes to cash in on name, image and likeness House GOP lawmakers urge Senate to confirm Vought 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 BurrThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump taking malaria drug; mayor eyes DC reopening Rubio to lead Senate Intel Committee amid Burr investigation Senate Intel Committee to vote Tuesday on Ratcliffe's DNI nomination 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 BuddHouse GOP lawmakers urge Senate to confirm Vought The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Dybul interview; Boris Johnson update Top conservatives pen letter to Trump with concerns on fourth coronavirus relief bill 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 ThuneOn The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K Senate leaves for break without passing Paycheck Protection Program fix McConnell in talks with Gardner to allow Senate to take Memorial Day recess 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 McConnellMemorial Day weekend deals latest economic blow to travel industry Senate Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Planned Parenthood loans On The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K 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.