FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina — Sen. Thom Tillis took the stage at the Crown Expo Center early last week, and looked out on thousands of rowdy North Carolina Republicans.
These should have been his people. A steadfast conservative, Tillis has served in the Senate for five years. Before that, he helped usher in an era of hard-right state government, as speaker of the North Carolina Legislature.
But none of that mattered to this MAGA-red crowd. As he walked to the podium, they showered him with boos.
Tillis, who’s up for re-election in 2020, made a costly error earlier this year: He crossed President Trump. After Trump announced a plan to raid military funding for his border wall, Tillis spoke out against the plan. That triggered talk of a serious primary challenge. So Tillis flip-flopped — which drew widespread ridicule without winning back his base.
Now Tillis is facing incoming from all sides. Loyal Trump fans see him as an unreliable ally. Democrats are hammering him for choosing his party base over the state’s military bases, which are slated to lose at least $50 million in funding to Trump’s border wall project.
In Fayetteville, Tillis made it clear how he plans to survive. He called for North Carolina to elect more Republicans “so we can continue to fight for Donald Trump.” He talked up his role in confirming Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He said Trump had “done more for the men and women in uniform” than any president in decades. Then he left the stage to tepid applause. Diamond & Silk were introduced, and the crowd erupted.
Whether Tillis’s strategy works may determine whether his party can hang onto control of the Senate. Democrats need to net three Senate seats to get to 50. They’re likely to lose Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). They feel confident about defeating Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.). And they think they have a decent shot at finally taking down Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). That would leave them one seat short. Tillis is their next-best target.
Trump won swing-state North Carolina by less than four points in 2016. Tillis won his own 2014 election by less than two points in a GOP wave year. And the state looks competitive in 2020: A July survey from Trump’s own pollster found the president trailing Joe Biden 49%-45% in North Carolina.
Even with the state trending purple, Tillis, as the incumbent, should be well positioned to stay employed. He’s been a solid conservative and a fairly loyal foot soldier to Trump, voting with the president on nearly every major proposal.
But like every swing-state Republican up for re-election, he has to balance the dual goals of pleasing Trump and wooing independents. Gardner and McSally have voted to protect Trump’s border-wall funding scheme and on other key measures, betting that it’s safer to be with the president than to cross him. Collins has shown more independence, splitting with him on this measure and others, including Obamacare.
Tillis has shown an independent streak. He introduced a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation from interference by the White House. He helped to torpedo Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency nominee. And he pushed a conservative version of immigration reform that would give a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, while arguing that the solution to border security “is not going to be a big, literal physical wall, but rather an all-the-above, all-hands-on-deck approach.”
Then, in February, President Trump declared a national emergency at the southern border, saying that he planned to move money appropriated for military projects to build a wall there. Tillis promptly published a Washington Post op-ed, saying Trump’s plan was not “not the right answer” and expressing “grave concerns.”
He reversed course a few weeks later. But it was too late. He’s now facing a primary challenge from a wealthy self-funded businessman named Garland Tucker, who’s already been airing ads attacking Tillis from the right.
A tough crowd
Trump has forgiven Tillis’s momentary lapse in loyalty. The president endorsed him after his flip-flop, gave him undue credit for coordinating disaster response to a recent hurricane that hit the state, and praised him from the stage in Fayetteville.
“We’ve had great support over the last six months in particular from a man who happens to be your senator right now, and we need him to keep going because he’s been fantastic,” Trump said.
But that message hasn’t quite reached Trump’s most loyal backers. Only two people of the more than two dozen who talked to VICE News at the rally said they planned to vote for Tillis in his primary.
“Don’t like him,” said Heather Lipchak, of Yanceyville, who said she’d oppose Tillis in the primary and would likely skip the Senate election if he’s the general-election nominee. “Thom Tillis has not upheld his position, which is to support my president.”
“I won’t be voting for him,” said Jason Ferree, a project manager from Archdale. “He flip-flopped on a number of issues at the last second to save his own butt to keep from getting voted out. He switched his opinions, he doesn’t support Trump. He’s a fair-weather friend.”
“He’s wishy-washy,” said Sarah Thompson, a former nurse who’s undecided in the primary. “It’s whatever is good for him.”
Tillis allies insist that he won’t have trouble in the primary. His opponent, Tucker, opposed Trump throughout the 2016 primaries and only reluctantly backed him in the general election, calling it a “dismal” choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Tillis has Trump’s endorsement — a golden ticket in most GOP primaries. And Tucker’s own polling shows him trailing Tillis by 10 points.
Still, that’s closer than it should be, and it’s clear Tillis is running scared. He recently dropped $2.2 million on TV ads touting Trump’s endorsement. It was a remarkably early ad buy months ahead of the March primary, and it cost almost half the cash he had in his campaign war chest as of the end of June.
The ad also uses some creative editing to sidestep the fact that Tillis was booed by some in the crowd when Trump brought him up at his July rally, where the footage was shot.
Tillis’s backers privately admit that his missteps will force him to spend a good chunk of time and money branding himself as a Trump loyalist, rather than focusing on the small but crucial segment of swing voters he’ll need to win over in the general. That includes taking positions, like the military funding decision, that could hurt his state.
A $50 million problem
Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced that North Carolina’s military bases would lose a combined $50 million in planned projects to pay for the wall, plus another $30 million pulled from previously canceled project at Fort Bragg. North Carolina has the fourth-largest population of active-duty military personnel in the country; 8 percent of the total population are veterans, above the national average. The Raleigh News and Observer’s editorial after the cuts were announced was headlined “Thom Tillis’ terrible, no good and totally predictable bad day.” The Fayetteville Observer called Tillis’s reversal an “Olympic gold flip-flop.”
Tillis’s likely general-election opponent, former North Carolina state Sen. Cal Cunningham, is leading Tillis in recent polls. And he's pouncing on the senator's flip-flop.
“It's another in a list of ways in which he's failed to be the independent voice we're looking for in our senator,” Cunningham told VICE News during an interview at his Raleigh campaign office last week. “And it's another example of him caving in to political pressure.”
Tillis’s team declined multiple interview requests with the senator. They pointed out that the Senate has recently passed a bill to backfill the money Trump transferred from the military for the wall.
“If the projects are impacted, it will be because House Democrats play partisan politics and block the military funding,” Tillis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo told VICE News.
Trashing House Democrats: That definitely will play to the base. But Tillis’s need to win back Trump loyalists means he won’t be able to inch toward the center on certain issues. His fate is tied to Trump’s. If the president carries North Carolina by a comfortable margin, that may not matter. But right now, that’s far from a sure thing.
Back when he was looking for some distance from the president, Tillis said something interesting to Politico: “Courage is when you know you’re going to do something that’s going to anger your base.”
It’s unclear what he’d call doing something that angers your base and the other side, too.
Cover: Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. and former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about immigration with Republican Senators in 2018. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)