[This story has been revised and updated.]
WASHINGTON — Sen. Thom Tillis made a stunning reversal on Thursday, declaring he would support President Trump’s emergency border wall declaration after vowing to oppose the president.
The North Carolina senator was expected to be among the Republican defectors who helped push a resolution opposing Trump’s move to bypass Congress to secure billions of dollars for a border wall.
“As a U.S. senator, I cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress,” Tillis wrote in The Washington Post in late February. “As a conservative, I cannot endorse a precedent that I know future left-wing presidents will exploit to advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms.”
He changed his mind.
Flash forward to Thursday ahead of the vote, when Tillis suddenly declared on the Senate floor that he’d be backing the president by opposing the resolution — and urged his colleagues to do the same.
“The concerns I’ve raised were never about what President Trump is trying to accomplish but rather with setting a precedent that a future Democratic president would exploit to bypass Congress to implement policies well outside the mainstream,” Tillis said Thursday in a statement.
He added that he’s met with Vice President Mike Pence and senior White House staff, and gotten assurance that the administration will work to amend the National Emergencies Act — the law that allows Trump to seek funding without congressional approval — to “prevent a future left-wing president from misusing their authority.”
The resolution passed even without Tillis’ support — 12 other GOP senators voted to end Trump’s emergency declaration. Trump is certain to veto the measure and Congress isn’t expected to have the two-thirds majority needed to override his rejection.
Tillis’ sudden reversal surprised political observers.
“It’s all very odd,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
“I’m not surprised at the vote at the end but I’m surprised that he would come out and say he was going to vote against the president and then not do it,” Taylor added.
Tillis — who’s up for re-election in 2020 and will be a prime target for Democrats hoping to retake the Senate — was widely perceived to be using this vote to distance himself from Trump.
“I think Tillis has been sort of nibbling around the edges of trying to demonstrate some independence from the president,” Taylor said.
But Tillis may also need to fend off a primary challenge from the right.
“I suspect that maybe some people had signaled that behavior like this may lead to being primaried,” Taylor said. “He was in damage control.”
Indeed, The Hill reported on Wednesday that conservative activists were concerned about Tillis’ backing for the resolution to block Trump’s emergency declaration. They were also concerned about legislation from Tillis that would protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation from White House interference.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) told the Hill that he’s considering a Senate bid in the Tar Heel State at some point. That could mean running for Sen. Richard Burr’s seat in 2020 if he retires, but Walker said he wouldn’t “rule out” a primary challenge against Tillis.
Walker’s office told McClatchy that the congressman isn’t “planning” to primary Tillis.
Garland Tucker, a Raleigh businessman, is also reportedly considering a primary challenge against Tillis.
The North Carolina senator told reporters after his vote Thursday, “I’ve naturally assumed I was going to have a primary challenge. It usually happens nearly every election cycle in North Carolina,” according to McClatchy.
North Carolina Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx on Thursday said she has “no idea” whether Tillis will face a primary challenge. Asked whether his initial position opposing Trump could hurt him with voters, she said, “That’s a decision Senator Tillis has to be concerned about” … “I don’t do polls.”
Democrats are already planning to use Tillis’ reversal against him.
“It’s crystal clear that Thom Tillis is more scared of a primary challenge than he is loyal to his principles or to North Carolinians. Tillis’s cynical political flip-flop is just another reason for North Carolinians to vote him out in 2020,” said Amelia Penniman, a spokeswoman for the liberal research group American Bridge.
Tillis has reason to worry in 2020, said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Elections.
He’s “one of the half dozen most vulnerable senators in the country” in 2020, he said. “I expect it to be close and competitive.”
The once-solid GOP state continues to become more competitive, Gonzales said, putting Tillis ina tough spot.
“He needs voters who love the president and voters who are uncomfortable with the president to vote for him,” Gonzales said.
Robin Bravender is Washington Bureau Chief for The Newsroom network, of which NC Policy Watch is a member.
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