Campaigns

Trump loyalty is already at the heart of North Carolina Senate primary

Tillis campaign attacks primary challenger as ‘anti-Trump activist’

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis earned a primary challenge on Monday from a retired businessman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Retired businessman Garland Tucker III is launching a primary challenge to North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, one of Republicans’ most vulnerable senators in 2020.

As most primaries have been since President Donald Trump was elected, this one is already being made into a contest over loyalty to the president, which could complicate the GOP’s efforts to defend an increasingly competitive state in 2020. 

Tucker, the retired chairman and CEO of Triangle Capital Corp., filed to run on Monday and an official announcement is expected in the coming days. McClatchy first reported the news.

Tucker has written two books — one about the 1924 presidential election and one about 14 conservative leaders in America — and has served on the board of the John Locke Foundation and the Civitas Institute. 

The Tillis campaign immediately sought to portray Tucker’s candidacy as a threat to Trump, referring to Tucker as an “anti-Trump activist.”

“Today’s candidate has a long record of attacking the President and appears to be assembling an anti-Trump team,” Tillis campaign manager Luke Blanchat said in a statement. “Senator Tillis looks forward to continuing to work with President Trump and Vice President Pence in securing our border and keeping our economy growing at a record setting pace.”

Tillis is making his first bid for re-election to the Senate. He endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for president in February 2016. Tucker originally supported Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the primary. His final choice in the primary was Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He supported Trump in general election.

“As a conservative and a lifelong Republican, I stoutly resisted Trump’s nomination,” Tucker wrote in a 2016 column in The News & Observer. But ultimately, he said, he felt more strongly about not backing Hillary Clinton

“For conservatives who could never vote for Clinton, the resulting by-product is necessarily a vote for Trump,” Tucker concluded. 

Carter Wrenn, a longtime GOP operative in North Carolina who’s working for Tucker, explained on Monday that, like many North Carolina conservatives, Tucker hadn’t known Trump in 2016 and had been worried he wasn’t conservative enough. But, Wrenn said, Trump has proven to be conservative in office.

“Garland is an old fashioned conservative,” Wrenn said, casting the Senate primary as a race between a businessman outsider and a D.C. politician.

“Tackling an incumbent senator is always an uphill climb,” Wrenn said. “But Tillis is weaker than most incumbents,” he added. 

Switched vote on ‘emergency’

Tillis’ high-profile switch on Trump’s national emergency declaration contributed to speculation that he may be vulnerable to a primary. He came out against the emergency declaration in a Washington Post op-ed in late February. Conservatives — including members of the delegation — made noise about someone challenging the first-term senator, although GOP Rep. Mark Walker later ruled out running himself. Two weeks after his op-ed, when Democrats brought to the floor a resolution that would terminate the emergency declaration, Tillis sided with the president. 

Tillis has voted with his party 96 percent of the time he’s been in the Senate, according to CQ’s Vote Watch. He’s supported Trump 99 percent of the time compared to 98 percent of the time for the average Senate Republican. 

National Republicans aren’t concerned about the primary challenge against Tillis, comparing Tucker’s candidacy to losing Senate bids from Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama or state Sen. Chris McDaniel in Mississippi. 

“There is no precedent for an anti-Trump primary challenger in the South being able to surmount comments attacking Trump,” said GOP source involved in Senate races. 

Tillis raised nearly $1.2 million during the first three months of the year. He ended March with $2.9 million in the bank. Tucker has personal resources he can throw at a campaign, but it’s not clear how much he could or would self fund a primary campaign. 

Tillis came to the Senate in 2015, defeating Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014 by less than 2 points. The former state House speaker won an eight-person primary that year by nearly 20 points. 

He has not yet attracted a high-profile Democratic challenger. Trump carried the state by about 4 points in 2016. Both parties are expecting shifting demographics in the state to make North Carolina a competitive state at both the Senate and presidential level. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican

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