As a regular consumer and producer of opinion columns, it’s possible that this observer tends to inflate their importance in the world of N.C. politics.
But two op-eds clearly have played significant roles in the opening stages of the fight for Republicans’ 2020 U.S. Senate nomination. Whether those op-eds have any long-term impact remains to be seen.
Incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis faces his first re-election contest next year. Heading into that race, a Feb. 25 column in the Washington Post focused national attention on Tillis, and not necessarily for reasons he would have liked.
The senator devoted much of his op-ed to pledging support for President Trump’s agenda of securing the southern border. Tillis also took shots at congressional Democrats. He accused them of obstructing Trump’s plans for dealing with the border and immigration.
But it was the Republican senator’s bottom-line conclusion that attracted notice. “I would vote in favor of the resolution disapproving of the president’s national-emergency declaration, if and when it comes before the Senate,” he wrote.
How could Tillis support the president on border security, yet oppose the national-emergency declaration designed to help implement Trump’s policies? The senator pointed to the proper separation of powers between Congress and the federal government’s executive branch.
He cited his concerns “as a conservative” about a precedent “future left-wing presidents will exploit.” Those future presidents could follow Trump’s lead to “advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms,” Tillis wrote.
Nothing about the preceding paragraph would appear out of place in the writing, floor debates, or stump speeches of a standard-issue, right-of-center Republican lawmaker. But the practical impact of Tillis’ principled stand was direct opposition to Trump. The president’s supporters cared little about the senator’s purported principles or the proper balance between Capitol Hill and the White House.
By the time the Senate voted on the emergency declaration, 17 days after the op-ed’s publication, Tillis had changed his mind. From the Senate floor, he explained that conversations with Trump administration officials and fellow senators had addressed his concerns. He voted with the president.
But the damage was done. Trump supporters didn’t rally to his defense. They didn’t praise his decision to set his reservations aside and stick with the team.
Those who might have credited Tillis for standing by his principles no longer had a reason to do so. And most observers considered the episode to offer evidence of a “full flip-flop,” quoting a Raleigh News & Observer headline.
One person who clearly followed the proceedings with interest was retired Raleigh business executive Garland Tucker. Speaking May 8 with nationally syndicated radio host Sean Hannity, Tucker referred to Tillis and “the famous Washington Post op-ed.” “When he got a lot of pressure from conservatives back home, he flip-flopped on that issue,” Tucker said to Hannity’s audience. “I think on immigration he’s been very, very weak.”
Tucker featured that “famous” op-ed in his first television ad challenging Tillis’ re-election bid. Vying against the incumbent in a Republican primary, Tucker pledged to distinguish himself from the sitting senator both on immigration and government spending.
The challenger also promises support for Trump. He compares the president’s economic policies to those of conservative heroes Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “When I’m elected senator of North Carolina, I’m going to support him 100 percent on what he’s doing with the economy, for sure,” Tucker told Hannity.
Those words haven’t protected Tucker against a charge from Tillis’ camp that the challenger is actually an “anti-Trump activist” who is “assembling an anti-Trump team.”
What’s the basis for Tillis’ accusation? Tucker’s own words.
He wrote an op-ed for the News & Observer in September 2016, shortly before Trump’s presidential election victory. Tucker labeled Trump a “flawed candidate.” The op-ed critiqued Trump’s character and temperament. It questioned his consistency on policy issues. Tucker pledged with reluctance to support Trump over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Responding this month to criticism of that nearly three-year-old column, Tucker told the N&O that he “wouldn’t retract anything” in it. He labeled Trump’s performance in office “one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve ever seen.” Tucker says he’s now pleased that Trump was elected, and “I shudder to think there’s any chance he might not get re-elected.”
Regardless of Tucker’s explanation, Tillis supporters might continue to mine that 2016 op-ed for damaging material. They will hope to plant seeds of doubt about Tucker’s devotion to Trump and his policies.
Much will happen between now and the March 2020 Republican primary. Both Tillis and Tucker will have plenty of ways to share their opinions with GOP voters. One can only guess whether either of these two potentially damaging op-ed columns will sway voters as they head to the polls.
But it seems clear that Tillis’ and Tucker’s writing has helped set the stage for the campaign that lies ahead.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.