Trump endorses North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis

FILE - In this March 14, 2019, file photo, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., attends a Senate Armed Services hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trump has endorsed Tillis, handing a significant political asset to the first-term Republican senator seeking reelection in 2020 in the closely divided state. Trump tweeted Tuesday, June 25, his "full and total endorsement" to Tillis as he already faces a primary challenger. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — President Donald Trump endorsed North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis on Tuesday, delivering a significant political asset for the first-term Republican senator already facing a primary challenge for his reelection next year in the closely divided state.

Trump tweeted his “Full and Total Endorsement” to Tillis, who has faced criticisms from members of the state’s GOP base questioning whether he’s given full-throated support to the president.

Garland Tucker, a retired investment company firm executive who jumped into the primary last month, has made Tillis’ initial opposition to Trump’s emergency declaration for a U.S.-Mexico border wall a campaign issue. Tillis later reversed himself and supported the declaration. He also co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would have prevented Trump from firing special counsel Robert Mueller.

These don’t appear to bother Trump too much.

Tillis “has really stepped up to the plate,” the president tweeted. “Thom is tough on Crime, Strong on the Border and fights hard against Illegal Immigration. He loves our Military, our Vets and our great Second Amendment. I give Thom my Full and Total Endorsement!”

Trump’s blessing is another beneficial development for Tillis for the March primary. Two weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Mark Walker — a favorite of hardline conservatives and chairman of the Republican Study Committee — announced he wouldn’t try to unseat Tillis. Walker said he had spoken to Trump about running.

Tillis has made a more deliberate effort to promote the president and support for him, posting a video highlighting his backing of Trump’s court nominations as he serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Vice President Mike Pence and Tillis were featured guests last month at a Greensboro fundraiser that was publicized as a Trump-Pence re-election event.

Tillis has said in interviews it’s important for Republicans to be unified to keep his seat — needed to retain a Republican majority— and help Trump win in North Carolina, a key presidential battleground state. Trump won there in 2016 by nearly 4 percentage points.

“I’m proud of the results we’ve delivered to reignite our economy, rebuild our military, and make America great again,” Tillis said in a release thanking Trump for the endorsement.

Tucker said in a statement late Tuesday that the issues in the race haven’t changed, highlighting the emergency declaration, the Mueller legislation and foreign aid spending.

“I understand President Trump has to work with establishment senators — and Thom Tillis is a part of the Washington Establishment,” Tucker said.

At least four Democrats also are lining up to take on Tillis, including three current or former state legislators and a county commissioner. Two who jumped in the race last week have campaigned statewide before. Former state Sen. Cal Cunningham ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, and ex-Sen. Eric Mansfield ran for lieutenant governor in 2012.

Mansfield wrote Tuesday night that “at the end of the day, North Carolinians will decide who represents them, not DC politicians.”

North Carolina Democratic Party spokesman Robert Howard accused Tillis of recently “spinelessly bending over backwards to appease President Trump at the cost of North Carolina families.”