Sen. Thom Tillis. | Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo
RALEIGH, N.C. — Sen. Thom Tillis began the Trump era by negotiating with Democrats on immigration and co-authoring legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller. He even briefly opposed President Donald Trump’s national emergency to build a border wall.
But now, the North Carolina Republican’s independent streak is fading. He’s deploying the president as a shield against a conservative primary challenger and he’s hugging Trump tightly.
Take Trump’s suggestion to investigate Joe Biden in a phone call with the Ukrainian president. Some GOP senators call it inappropriate but not impeachable; other at-risk incumbents have struggled with the query. It’s the central question of the House impeachment inquiry.
Tillis sides firmly with Trump: “Would I have done it? I don’t know because I’m not the president, and I haven’t been pursued relentlessly for three years.”
Trump “deserves to be defended” by Republicans ahead of a likely impeachment trial, Tillis added. The Democrats’ evidence thus far? “Nothing there,” he tells supporters.
It’s a shrewd political strategy amid a well-funded primary challenge from Garland Tucker, a conservative businessman who paints Tillis as an enemy of the Trump agenda. But Tillis’ role as Trump’s new best friend threatens to undermine his profile as a diligent, unpredictable senator — and could damage his chances in the general election.
Standing behind Tucker is potential Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham, an establishment-backed military veteran eager to cast Tillis as a lackey who “married himself to Donald Trump.” Trump won North Carolina in 2016, but it is a perennial swing state, and Trump’s approval ratings are sinking.
Most immediate, however, is surviving perhaps the toughest primary battle facing any Republican senator this cycle.
“He probably has more of a challenge in a primary than he does in a general,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a close ally of the president who has not endorsed Tillis.
Meadows added that Tillis’ support for the special counsel bill and his shifting stance on the national emergency declaration “created an opening in a race that would generally not have seen a credible primary challenger.”
The wealthy Tucker is spending heavily on ads highlighting Tillis’ “flip-flop” on the border — Tillis’ most infamous episode as a senator — when he voted to uphold the national emergency after announcing his opposition in a Washington Post op-ed. Tillis boasts a 94 percent voting score with the president, but Tucker is pouring enough money into pointing out Tillis’ perceived dalliances away from Trump that the senator felt compelled to respond with an ad barrage of his own.
Tillis acknowledges his style isn’t necessarily built to appeal to his party’s hard-liners. At a North Carolina Federation of Republican Women event, he lamented that sometimes he gets “criticized because I don’t speak too fiery or talk too angry.”
“Some people, I think, perceive my style as being something that’s soft,” he said during a 25-minute interview at the state party headquarters. “But I’ve got a good conservative track record to run on. And we believe if people know it, they know where I stand on immigration, they know where I stand to the level where the president will endorse me. We’ll win.”
These are rare moments of self-reflection for Tillis, a confident, bordering on cocky, 59-year-old former state House speaker who helped rebuild the North Carolina GOP. He said Trump would campaign for him in the primary if necessary but dismisses Tucker: “I don’t believe the race is even close.”
Many Republicans still believe Tillis can ride Trump’s coattails to reelection, though he risks running behind the president in a state known for close elections. GOP alarms go off every few years in North Carolina, sometimes warranted and sometimes not: In 2016, GOPSen. Richard Burr was easily reelected despite running a laid-back campaign, while the Republican governor was cast out.
This year, Tucker is essentially operating as a Democratic super PAC, draining Tillis of resources and allowing national Democrats to sit back and enjoy the show. It’s a situation that most other vulnerable incumbents have avoided, but Tillis’ plight is unique, having riled up parts of Trump’s base with his limited dissent.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) flirted with running against Tillis, but backed down. And while Meadows said he is not interested, he noted that with the state’s congressional districts in flux, “you could get a sitting member of Congress thinking it’s easier to run for Senate” than run for reelection in a blue district.
Walker and Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) have both been drawn into Democratic areas in the latest map. The deadline to jump into the primary is Dec. 20.
Facing attacks from the right and left, Tillis harbors few regrets. He’s dropped any notion of deal-making on immigration with Democrats, walking away from2018 talks to help Dreamers and dismissing comprehensive immigration reform as something that could happen “maybe 20 years from now” after the border is fully secured.
He even argues that his bill protecting the special counsel from a Trump firingwas all about defending the president.
“I had a concern and it actually proved to be wise: to let the special counsel play out its role. Because there was no collusion and no obstruction,” Tillis said. “Obviously, I support the president. I thought, like he did, that it was a witch hunt.”
Tillis concedes he could have “probably spent more time explaining” his queasiness with Trump’s national emergency to his constituents, but doesn’t disavow what in North Carolina political circles is now simply called “the op-ed.”
It’s an example of the dissonance surrounding Tillis. He tells Republican supporters he’s been with Trump “every step of the way” on the border wall but also emphasizes his willingness to take criticism from his own party.
“If all you do is take the easy way out and be silent on things that you feel strongly about institutionally, then you’re not really doing your job as a U.S. senator,” Tillis said. “I’m not going to be that person.”
It’s a difficult argument for himto make, but it doesn’t surprise close friends. Tillis is a partisan Republican, but he bristles at the idea that he’s become a rubber stamp.
“There have been times where Tillis has stopped and truly deliberated,” said Carolyn Justice, a former GOP state lawmaker and longtime ally. “People confuse that with his support for Trump overall. And that’s a mistake.”
“We live in an environment where people are out to get you if you stray one inch,”said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has told Trump directly that Tillis is a strong general election candidate.
Tucker says he’s put $1.5 million of his own money into the race and will put in still more, hoping to tap what he describes as long-standing conservative dissatisfaction with Tillis.
“It wasn’t necessarily that [conservatives] were waiting for me to run, but they were waiting for someone,” Tucker said in an interview in North Raleigh, flanked by adviser Carter Wrenn, a former aide to the late firebrand conservative Sen. Jesse Helms.
As he chomped on a lit cigar, Wrenn insisted Tucker has narrowed the race to about 10 points. Tillis has put more than $2 million of his campaign money into ads attacking Tucker as someone who “lies like a dog,” and he scoffed when told of Wrenn’s account.
A recent Fox News poll showed Tillis with the support of 54 percent of primary voters, with Tucker garnering just 11 percent.
“This is Carter Wrenn’s retirement fund. That’s the only reason he’s got Garland running,” Burr said of the race.
Tillis said he’s spending early to introduce himself to the fast-growing state’s new voters who have arrived since his previous election in 2014. Public polling shows Tillis still has work to do. Public Policy Polling, Fox News and Morning Consult surveys show at least 25 percent of voters have no opinion of him, hampering his approval ratings.
“He is not really in control of how he’s defined,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. “This double whammy of being seen as not different enough from Trump among suburbanites and not supportive enough among rural conservatives could end up being the kiss of death.”
Whether Tucker comes anywhere close to beating Tillis is irrelevant to Democrats. They are just happy that Tillis is moving further to the right and putting the 2.2 million unaffiliated voters here in play.
“Extraordinarily weak, extraordinarily vulnerable,” Cunningham said of Tillis during an interview in nearby Cary. “I’d rather be me than him right now.”
North Carolina could easily be the tipping point for theGOP’s 53-seat majority. After losing the 2010 Senate primary here, Cunningham again has a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsement and is credible enough that Senate Republicans acknowledge Tillis is a top concern.
But Cunningham also has hurdles to overcome before he can face Tillis. The Fox News poll showed him trailing state Sen. Erica Smith, with Cunningham coming in at 13 percent of the vote to 18 percent for Smith.
“Every poll that has been conducted since this race started has me as the frontrunner,” Smith said.
Still, a 20-to-1 financial edge over Smith and the DSCC endorsement could prove decisive for Cunningham.
Cunningham is taking a centrist posture, distancing himself from “Medicare for All” and the suspension of deportations, while Tillis ties Cunningham relentlessly to Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In gauging Cunningham’s chances, Tillis strikes a Trumpian note, dubbing him “Silent Cal” after tight-lipped President Calvin Coolidge.
The incumbent senator said he takes his primary “seriously” but considers Cunningham his opponent, not Tucker. Tucker retorted that since his entry in the race, Tillis is “Trump’s new best friend … he’s desperate to make the race about Trump.”
Tillis insisted he “never” directly asked Trump for his June endorsement, which followed Tucker’s campaign launch. But he’ll be damned if anyone is questioning his Trump credentials.
“We’ve got the full support of the president,” Tillis said. “You can’t start out a campaign on the premise of thinking that you’re going to support the president more” than me.