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 standardbearer, 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.
Tillis is not the only senator with a low net approval at home.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) is the least popular Republican with his home base, with 49 percent approving and 28 percent disapproving. But the man viewed widely as the most vulnerable incumbent seeking re-election next year has faced no talk of a serious primary challenger, as several Democrats are lining up for their party’s nod to compete for the seat.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) – America’s least popular senator – experienced a similar, 11-point slide in his net approval among Kentucky Republicans as he looks to his re-election campaign, but his approval with his home base is 58 percent.
Scott Jennings, a Kentucky Republican strategist who is close to McConnell, said a primary challenge to the longtime incumbent would be a “fool’s errand” because the senator is “rock solid with Trump.”
Gonzales, who edits and publishes the nonpartisan website Inside Elections, reiterated the difficulty in toppling incumbents via primaries, regardless of their popularity.
“The senators who lost or came close to losing -- Dick Lugar, Thad Cochran, Pat Roberts -- were hurt more by the lack of time spent in the state rather than a lack of popularity,” he said in an email. “Matt Bevin challenged Mitch McConnell on more ideological grounds in 2014 and lost by 25 points.”
Other Republicans up for re-election next year are on solid ground with the base. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) – who has experienced a groundswell of base support in his state as he’s become a top advocate for Trump’s agenda – leads the field with 4 in 5 South Carolina Republicans approving of his job performance. Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and David Perdue of Georgia both hold approval ratings in the 70s.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who reshaped her coalition amid the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, is approved of by 67 percent of Maine Republicans.