A top strategist on President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has withdrawn from an effort to unseat North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis in 2020 — an arrangement that sparked tensions at the highest levels of the Republican Party.
Pollster John McLaughlin’s work for a Tillis primary challenger had angered leading Senate Republican campaign officials, who said the president’s team should be unified in the effort to reelect both Trump and incumbent Republican senators.
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Aides at the Senate GOP campaign arm reached out to multiple Trump 2020 officials and separately to the Republican National Committee in recent weeks to express their displeasure over McLaughlin’s work. The pollster had signed on to help Garland Tucker, a former investment company executive who’s pledged to spend at least $1 million of his own money against Tillis.
The Senate Republican officials argued that a disruptive primary could wreak havoc on the party’s prospects in the battleground state and ultimately hurt Republicans up-and-down the ballot, including Trump.
Contacted by POLITICO on Sunday, McLaughlin said he hadn’t decided whether to keep working for Tucker. But by Tuesday, he and his firm had cut ties with the candidate, two people familiar with his decision said.
The run-in was the first major rift this year between the Trump campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, threatening to drive a wedge between the two organizations at a time of unease about the party’s prospects. With Trump trailing Joe Biden in internal GOP polling and Senate Republicans defending at least a half-dozen endangered incumbents, there is widespread agreement within the party hierarchy that its array of committees, groups, and campaigns need to get along.
The president is establishing a sprawling political apparatus and Republicans from across the party ecosystem have praised the reelection campaign for embracing a collaborative approach and for establishing clear lines of communication.
But in some corners of the party, the North Carolina episode has reignited long-held concerns that the Trump political machine at times operates on its own with little regard for other Republicans. The first-term Tillis is one of the most endangered senators up for reelection, and senior Republicans worry that the primary challenge could further complicate his prospects.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who wields vast control over the Senate campaign arm, is fiercely protective of incumbents, particularly those facing primaries. During the 2014 midterms, the NRSC took the unusual step of blacklisting consulting firms that worked for primary challengers to sitting lawmakers.
“Clearly for party committees, they want to avoid anything that could cause turmoil for their incumbent members, especially in states that are critical to both Senate majorities and winning the White House,” said Doug Heye, a former RNC official who has worked on multiple North Carolina statewide campaigns.
Spokespersons for the Trump campaign and NRSC declined to comment.
McLaughlin, a veteran GOP pollster who also worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, has downplayed the extent of his role with Tucker. During a May 10 phone call, he told NRSC executive director Kevin McLaughlin (no relation) that his work on the Tucker campaign was limited to a November 2018 poll and to a recent media buy that his firm had placed, two people familiar with the conversation said.
John McLaughlin, meanwhile, has told Trump campaign officials that he’s turned down other candidates looking to wage anti-incumbent campaigns who’d asked him for help. He has also said that his work for Tucker began before the Trump campaign spoke to him about coming on board.
Still, the arrangement has caused considerable angst among those in the tight-knit world of Senate GOP operatives, many of whom view McLaughlin as an important figure in Trump’s orbit. McLaughlin, who recently worked on a 17-state polling project for the Trump campaign, had been expected to attend a summit last weekend at Camp David focused on 2020 that was to include the president, McConnell, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. (The summit ended up being canceled.)
McLaughlin was brought into the Tucker campaign by Carter Wrenn, a veteran North Carolina political hand with whom he’s long worked. The arrangement put the pollster opposite Tillis strategist Paul Shumaker, a prominent strategist in the state who is regarded as a fierce Wrenn rival.
The North Carolina flare-up is not the first disagreement between the Trump 2020 campaign and the Senate GOP campaign arm. Trump aides have vigorously pushed back on Senate Republican efforts to recruit Iraq war veteran and rising GOP star John James into the Michigan Senate race.
In a private memo and in face-to-face meetings, Trump aides have told Senate GOP officials that a statewide campaign by James would cause Democrats to spend more money in the battleground state — thereby diminishing the president’s prospects.
Senate Republicans strongly disagree with the assessment, maintaining that James would give the party a formidable statewide ticket.
Those involved describe the Michigan debate as the kind of strategic difference that frequently arises in campaigns. The North Carolina clash, by contrast, has stoked fears that the fiercely anti-establishment president could be receptive to primary challenges against GOP incumbents, they say.
Some of them said McLaughlin’s work could give the false impression that Tucker has the president’s backing, which the Tillis campaign is trying to head off. Late last year, as word circulated that Tucker was interested in running, Shumaker sent the White House an op-ed Tucker wrote in 2016 campaign in which he called Trump “a twice-divorced, self-acknowledged adulterer” and expressed regret about supporting him in the general election.
There are early indications, however, that the president is aligning himself with Tillis. Trump met with the senator last week, and on Wednesday Tillis is expected to attend a Trump 2020 fundraiser in Greensboro, N.C. headlined by Vice President Mike Pence.