North Carolinians don’t generally like their US Senators. Almost every election cycle starts with some incumbent Senator with a favorability rating somewhere in the mid-30s. We routinely throw out Senators after one term. Only two Senators, Jesse Helms and Richard Burr, have been re-elected in the state since 1972.
This year, it’s Thom Tillis who looks embattled. His approval rating is upside down and according to poll commissioned by the conservative group Club for Growth, only 45% of Republicans approve of Tillis. The Club wants to push Sixth District Congressman Mark Walker into a primary. Walker hasn’t said no.
Tillis has already drawn one opponent, Garland Tucker. Tucker is an old school, pre-Trump conservative. He’s from the business sector and probably doesn’t appeal to the more populist GOP base in North Carolina. He might be able to force Tillis to spend a lot of money, but he probably can’t beat him in a head-to-head.
Both Tillis and Tucker have problems with the Trump base. Both men have criticized Trump in the past but now both are trying to embrace him. Populists, correctly, smell a rat. Tucker has firmly held beliefs that he’s outlined over the years as commentator for the John Locke Foundation. Tillis has no firmly held beliefs except in his political aspirations. He’ll be whatever kind of conservative gets him to the next step in his career.
Walker would add a far different dynamic to the primary. He’s a preacher who could galvanize social conservatives who are suspicious of Tillis and would be of Tucker if they knew him. Walker has also been an unabashed supporter of Trump unlike the two recent converts to Trumpism who are already in the race. With only 30% needed to win a primary with no runoff, Walker can probably see a clear path if the shrinking business-friendly wing of the GOP splits between Tillis and Tucker.
Helms kept his seat because nobody questioned his conservative credentials. He was a polarizing figure who wooed the racist wing the Democratic Party of the old One Party South into the GOP. He staunchly supported racial segregation. He staunchly opposed the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. In 1984, he gave Jim Hunt his only loss when he won with the slogan, “Where do you stand, Jim?,” an appeal, in large part, to white southerners on racial issues.
Burr has been more fortunate than savvy. He’s started both of his re-election campaigns with relatively low name ID and favorability ratings. Nobody really questions his conservative credentials but nobody knows much about him. He was re-elected in the wave of 2010 and then with Trump’s coattails in 2016.
Historically, incumbent senators in North Carolina have lost their seats in general election campaigns. This year, Tillis could lose his in the primary. The Democratic field has yet to completely take shape, but if Tillis or Tucker is the GOP nominee they will probably need long coattails from Trump to get across the line in the closely divided state. There’s certainly an argument that Walker would do more to turnout the base than the two mushier candidates.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >