Two weeks ago, Sen. Thom Tillis said President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration violated the separation of powers and created a dangerous precedent, stating in an op-ed that he would vote to reverse it.
On Thursday, the North Carolina Republican flipped and sided with Trump on the border vote.
Story Continued Below
While a dozen Senate Republicans joined Democrats to support a resolution undoing Trump’s move to fund a border wall, Tillis and all but one other Republican up for reelection in 2020 — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — stuck with the president. The list includes Sen. Cory Gardner of blue-trending Colorado and Sen. Martha McSally, who was appointed this year but will face Arizona voters again in 2020 after losing a tough race in 2018.
The vote underscores how little Republicans on the ballot in 2020 want to break with the president, even on an issue that divided the party and in states where Trump’s approval rating is low. And nothing illustrated why like Tillis’ bout of public indecision, which drew condemnation and open talk of a primary challenge from North Carolina Republicans — just as the first-term senator begins revving up his battleground-state reelection campaign, which will need strong support from the GOP base.
Tillis told POLITICO in an interview after the vote that he worked closely with the administration to get an agreement to consider changes to the National Emergencies Act, saying the president’s willingness to do so convinced him to switch his vote.
“I was showing deference to the president as a result of that,” Tillis said. “Particularly in light of the fact that I also agree with [Trump’s] priority on the border. It was only the mechanism. It wasn’t what he did, it was how he did it.”
While Tillis’ vote put him back on the president’s side, Democrats attacked his other flank Thursday after he switched positions. Robert Howard, a North Carolina Democratic Party spokesman, said Tillis “caved under pressure.”
“Tillis again reminded the entire state who he is: a spineless politician who won’t keep his promises and looks out for himself instead of North Carolina,” Howard said.
Nearly every other Republican on the ballot in 2020 voted to uphold the emergency. In addition to Gardner and McSally, Joni Ernst of Iowa, David Perdue of Georgia and John Cornyn of Texas are all expected to face competitive challenges next year, but they all voted in favor of the emergency.
“Beware the fury of Trump,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, who added he thought Republican senators could have faced primary challenges for opposing Trump on the issue. “Trump’s grip on the party is strong.”
Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster, said border security broadly remains popular even though Trump’s proposed border wall and the emergency declaration are unpopular in opinion polls. Trump framed the vote entirely on border security concerns and said Republicans were “overthinking” the constitutional issues.
“Voting against the declaration poses a risk of being seen as not taking border security seriously,” Wilson said.
But Democrats vowed to use the vote to tie Republican senators and Trump together on the ballot in 2020.
“I think this is a vote that could matter a year and a half from now,” said J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, the biggest Democratic Senate super PAC. “For the last couple years they’ve been defined as get-along, go-along Republicans. This vote was a basic test of whether Republican incumbents can be independent.”
Tillis, in particular, had been targeted by conservatives upset at his initial position in recent weeks. Republicans have been prepared for the possibility Tillis could face a primary, and The Hill reported Wednesday that he was in danger of getting challenged because of his stance on the emergency.
Hours before the vote, Republican Rep. Mark Meadows said conservatives in North Carolina “are hoping he supports the president today.” GOP Rep. Mark Walker, who was mentioned as a potential challenger, said in an interview Thursday that his focus was more on a potential Senate run in 2022.
“At this point we have no plans to run against Thom Tillis,” Walker said, repeating it multiple times for emphasis.
Tillis brushed off concerns about a primary challenge, saying he’d always expected to face one. And he pointed to his support for a bill protecting special counsel Robert Mueller as evidence that he had stood firm on previous positions that frustrated fellow Republicans.
“That’s an instance where I’ve stood firm on a position that I know the president doesn’t like, but I think we’ve both gotten to a good place there,” Tillis said.
A Senate GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Tillis became concerned that he’d misinterpreted the national emergency statute after announcing his opposition to Trump’s emergency declaration. The aide said Tillis spoke repeatedly to Steven Engel, who runs the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, about the issue and was told Trump had the authority to issue the emergency declaration.
Collins was the first Republican to initially support the resolution against Trump’s emergency declaration. She said she spoke to a Republican group in Maine last weekend and several people told her they thought she was opposing border security. But Collins said that once she framed her position as about constitutional concerns, they were more accepting of her stance.
“This vote is not about the wall or border security or President Trump. It’s about the constitution,” Collins said.
Gardner said in a statement after the vote there is a “crisis” at the border and blamed Democratic leaders in Congress, who he said “prevented a solution” and forced the president’s hand.
But Trump also rejected a compromise proposal from Republicans to limit the national emergency power, which could have convinced more GOP senators to support the emergency.
McSally, who ran as a border hawk in 2018, said there was a “humanitarian and security crisis at the border” when she announced her support of the emergency. She said she had received assurances Arizona’s military construction projects would not be affected.
McSally’s potential Democratic challengers attacked her vote. Former astronaut Mark Kelly, the only well-known Democrat in the 2020 Arizona Senate race, called the emergency a “bad precedent” and said he would have opposed it. Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is weighing a Senate campaign, tweeted that McSally “feared [Trump] more than respected the AZ voter.”
But Republicans backed her up. “This isn’t New York or Illinois. Arizonans understand the need for border security,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist in the state. “So long as the issue is border security, this is a good move.”