President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border in February left Senate Republicans with a difficult choice: Act to protect Congress’ authority as a coequal branch of federal government, or support the president’s effort and be spared the wrath of the GOP base.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) made both arguments, vowing first to stand on principle in a Washington Post op-ed before changing his mind weeks later and voting against a resolution to block Trump’s bid to divert funding toward construction of his proposed wall on the southern border. And while Tillis ultimately sided with his party’s standard bearer, data from the latest Morning Consult Senator Approval Rankings indicates that the first-term senator sustained some intraparty damage ahead of his re-election campaign next year.
Tillis’ net approval — the share of voters who approve of his job performance minus the share who don’t — fell by 12 percentage points among North Carolina Republicans during the first quarter of 2019. Fifty-three percent of the state’s 5,611 registered GOP voters surveyed Jan. 1 through March 31 said they approved of his job performance — the second-lowest figure among all Senate Republicans running for re-election next year. The sample has a 1-point margin of error.
About a third of North Carolina Republicans (32 percent) said it’s time to give a new person a chance, compared with 39 percent who said Tillis has done a good-enough job to deserve re-election. That metric also places him second-to-last among Republicans seeking re-election.
“There seems to be more chatter about Tillis facing a primary than anyone else,” said nonpartisan political analyst Nathan Gonzales in an email Wednesday. “But his critics need a candidate. You can’t beat someone with no one.”
No candidate has emerged to challenge Tillis from his right, so far, despite the apparent opening. One potential candidate, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), has not ruled out a possible bid, though Republican sources in the Tar Heel State think he’s leaning against it. A spokesman for Walker said in an email Wednesday that he is “not currently planning to primary Thom Tillis” and “will continue to use his platform to support President Trump’s agenda.”
One conservative operative in the state said Tillis has a trust problem, with moderates questioning his independence from the president and conservatives questioning his loyalty.
Asked about his case to the Republican electorate, Jordan Shaw, who heads the Republican firm OnMessage Inc.’s Charlotte office and is advising Tillis’ re-election campaign, said the senator has stood by Trump many times despite his hesitance on the issue of the emergency declaration.
“You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a lot of results-oriented differences between Tillis and the president,” he said.
The conservative Washington Examiner pointed out earlier this month that Tillis was trying to flip flop his way back to re-election:
Conservatives in North Carolina have not forgiven Sen. Thom Tillis for initially opposing President Trump’s border emergency, and the Republican could face a competitive primary in 2020 despite ultimately backing the White House.
Tillis voted against a Democratic resolution that would have blocked Trump from declaring a national emergency along the southern border. But grassroots Republicans back home are still fuming about the senator’s original plan to support the legislation on constitutional grounds. Sensing weakness after Tillis essentially flip-flopped, activists and some party officials are talking about fielding a primary challenger.
“The words I heard more times than not were ‘too little, too late,’” Dianne Parnell, the Rockingham County GOP chairwoman, said in a telephone interview with the Washington Examiner. “I feel like he’s just not listening to the people.”
Tillis, 58, supports Trump’s immigration agenda and votes with the president on legislation nearly 95% of the time, according to analysis from FiveThirtyEight. But the Republican base in North Carolina is particularly pro-Trump and views Tillis as an establishment insider. Public opinion polls have shown damage to his personal favorability ratings since late last year.
In November, Tillis received a 34% favorable rating, according to a statewide poll of likely voters conducted by Harper Polling for Civitas Institute, a conservative advocacy group in Raleigh, N.C. In March, the Civitas survey showed Tillis with a 26% favorable rating. Donald Bryson, who runs the Civitas Institute, attributed the drop in Tillis' numbers to “a grassroots problem within the GOP base.”
Add this race to the list of top targets for Democrats to take the Senate. Stay tuned. In the meantime, let’s send another North Carolina Democrat to Congress this year. Click here to donate and get involved with Dan McCready’s (D. NC-09) campaign.