Garland S. Tucker III, retired financier, think tank fellow, accomplished author and straight-backed Southern gentleman (except for the matter of Dick’s Last Resort), was an unlikely tribune of the people. According to the speculation of many, GOP consultant Carter Wrenn talked Tucker into running for Senate in an effort to drum up some business in his pre-retirement years. Nevertheless, despite his crusty visage and genteel presentation, the former CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation polled competitively against Senator Thom Tillis. The junior member of our senate delegation is that vulnerable from the right.
With the roll out of new congressional maps, and the subsequent defenestration of George Holding and Mark Walker, two possibly primary challengers have emerged who could pose a more formidable threat to Tillis. Both men, if rumors have any merit, share an interest in running for the US Senate. Walker tellingly refused to rule out running for another office while disavowing interest in a primary challenge to Tedd Budd. While Holding has been characteristically quieter, the unreliable-but-well-connected Daily Haymaker speculated that he, too, is looking at a Senate race. Either former congressman would have a path to victory.
Start with Holding, who is less likely to run. At first glance, he doesn’t have the profile for a party that is increasingly populist and working class. He grew up in the tony environs of Old Raleigh, inherited a fortune from his banker family, and traded on political connections to acquire a series of plum government jobs. But successful politicians appeal to voters who may not immediately identify with their biographies. Holding has proven this, repeatedly, in competitive Republican primaries. In 2012, he defeated the better known–and very conservative–Paul Coble, and four years later, he handily dispatched Renee Ellmers in her own district.
His path to the Senate nomination would run through a synthesis of the strategies he used in 2012 and 2016. In his first race, he utilized a talented political team to develop a message (cut spending now!) that resonated with the moment. Surely the skilled professionals who surround him could articulate an effective anti-Tillis pitch. Beating Ellmers, on the other hand, was a back-to-basics affair: He contrasted his unquestionable conservative credentials with her inconstancy on abortion and immigration. Thom Tillis is even more vulnerable to that kind of ideologically rigorous framing.
While Holding would make a substantive case for his conservatism, Walker, fittingly for a Southern preacher, would make a more visceral pitch. As a candidate, Walker has not shied away from florid and flamboyant rhetoric. He wouldn’t have to stray far beyond his rhetorical bailiwick to forge an emotional connection with GOP voters. Walker would harness his pulpit-honed charismatic power to make himself a populist hero. No one would question his sincerity–sincerity being the core of Thom Tillis’s deep vulnerability. Having established himself as more Trumpist than Trump’s endorsed candidate, he could blaze to victory.
Perhaps Tillis will avoid a primary challenge altogether. It is, after all, getting late in the game. But he shouldn’t count on it: Representatives covet the prestige of the Senate, and the NCGA has left two congressmen with nowhere else to go.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.