This post has been updated.
Democrats have their sights set on Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who is seeking a second term. But, before Tillis can focus on a Democratic challenger, he must fend off a primary to his right from wealthy businessman Garland Tucker and farmer Sandy Smith.
Tillis had spent the lion’s share of his career in business, holding numerous positions within PriceWaterhouseCoopers and IBM. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2006 and served as Speaker before running for the Senate in 2014. He won a three-way primary with 46 percent of the vote and went on to defeat then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, 49 percent to 47 percent.
There is growing evidence that North Carolina is now a swing state. In 2008, Barack Obama carried the state by a point, but four years later, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the state by two points. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by four points. On that same ballot, Democrat Roy Cooper edged out incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.Republicans hold 10 of the state’s 13 congressional districts and have majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, but the special election earlier this month in the 9th congressional district should serve as a warning for the party. The district has a Partisan Voting Index of R+8, meaning it votes eight points more Republican than the nation as a whole yet GOP nominee Dan Bishop only managed to eke out a two-point victory even with a last-minute visit from Trump. The state will certainly be a presidential battleground in 2020 and Cooper is up for re-election as well.
The state’s changing political landscape forces Tillis to walk a fine line. As a result, he doesn’t seem to please either side. Many Republicans don’t believe that he is conservative enough, while Democrats argue that he is too conservative. It doesn’t help that he has some self-inflicted wounds. In February, Tillis penned an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he said that he would vote against President Trump’s declaration of an emergency on the southern border. After an outcry from conservatives, he changed his position. The story continues to linger. Trump diverted some money from the Department of Defense to pay for the border wall, including $80 million that was supposed to go to North Carolina. Conservatives are unhappy that Tillis joined a bipartisan effort to protect special counsel Robert Mueller. And they continue to hold a grudge with Tillis over his tenure as Speaker of the state House, arguing that he was too willing to work across the aisle and cut deals. The bottom line is that voters of all ideological stripes simply don’t trust Tillis.
It’s not surprising then that Tillis pulled primary opposition. Smith, a farmer, poses less of a threat than Tucker. Tucker retired as chairman and CEO of Triangle Capital in 2016; the company was sold last year for $1 billion. A longtime conservative, Tucker has authored two books, The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge and the 1924 Election and Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Changed America, from Jefferson to Reagan. Tucker seems to have ample personal resources to put in the race; as of June 30, he put $700,000 into the race, which amounted to most of the $1 million he reported. Tillis had nearly $4.4 million in the bank at the end of the second quarter.
Tucker has already been on the air, spending $849,000 to introduce himself to voters. Tillis launched his television advertising this week with a spot featuring footage of Trump at a rally in North Carolina calling Tillis a warrior and saying that he should be re-elected. Trump’s endorsement will carry a great deal of weight in the primary, but strategists wonder if it will be enough. While Tillis remains the favorite to win the nomination today, one question is how damaged he is coming out of it. If Tucker were to prevail, the seat would become tougher for Republicans to hold.
On the Democratic side, the frontrunner for the nomination is former state Sen. Cal Cunningham. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller, attorney Eva Lee, and st. Sen. Erica Smith are also seeking the nomination. Cunningham, an attorney, ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, but lost the nomination to then-Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. He finished the second quarter with $683.078 in the bank. Given the second quarter fundraising success of some other Democratic challengers, this isn’t an especially impressive number, but if our inbox is any indication Cunningham has been aggressively raising money and should post better numbers in the third quarter.
This is one race that Democrats need to become very competitive if they have any hope of winning the majority. For now, it moves to the Lean Republican column.