As it stands now, Democrats need a candidate for US Senate. There have been a few candidates to throw their hat into the race so far, but none of them have the fundraising ability or the institutional support to mount a realistic challenge against the incumbent Thom Tillis. For many North Carolina Democrats, there is serious concern that no credible candidate has stepped up yet.
Beyond the simple fact that Democrats would prefer to have at least one of their own in one of the the two Senate seats, North Carolina is significant on the national stage. With the Senate divided rather closely, Democrats need only to secure a handful of seats to win back the majority, albeit by the slimmest of margins.
Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama was a fluke, as well-deserved and necessary as it may have been, and his seat is all but guaranteed to revert back to the GOP. That means that Democrats need to win in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and then somewhere else to get to 50. Somewhere else is most likely going to be North Carolina.
As Thomas wrote earlier this week, North Carolinians don’t like their senators. If your name doesn’t end in Helms or Burr, it’s difficult to win re-election in the Tar Heel state. Our senators are swept in on a narrow margin and then, in six years, shown the door. For Democrats, that makes 2020 a particularly attractive year to take back one of the seats.
It may prove to be a perfect storm. The trend mentioned above may strike again; Thom Tillis is staggeringly unpopular within his own party, as polling from both Morning Consult last month and Club for Growth more recently displays. 45% of his fellow Republicans in the state find his performance favorable, and less than one in five say they would commit to voting for him in a primary if given other options.
Already, other options already exist. Garland Tucker, a wealthy conservative with deep ties to the conservative intelligentsia in the state, has committed $1 million of his own money to primary Tillis. While Tucker comes into the race with little name recognition, he certainly has the resources to be a notable thorn in the embattled incumbent’s side.
And that’s not all. Mark Walker, a Republican member of the House who is known for his socially conservative bona fides, has reveled in the attention from a speculated primary challenge. He has yet to rule it out, and the aforementioned Club for Growth poll was clearly more fuel to to spur him into the race.
One-on-one, Tillis likely beats Tucker Garland, but with a third candidate that matches the base primary electorate well in Mark Walker, all bets are off. All of this points in one direction: Thom Tillis is in trouble. But what will Democrats do about it?
One option is to emulate Arizona. The Grand Canyon State has a top-tier recruit in Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and soldier, and husband to former Rep. Gabby Giffords. His entry into the race has spurred Arizona Democrats behind a single, viable candidate. His profile also matches that of many successful Democrats elsewhere in the nation competing in difficult races.
Although the more progressive candidates garner the news coverage, it was mostly moderate, Blue Dog Democrats, many with a military background, that led the Democrats back into the House Majority. One example close to home is Dan McCready, who narrowly “lost” the race in NC-09 to Mark Harris before the NCSBE threw out the results and called a new election. He now faces Dan Bishop in a rematch, but in a district that Trump won by a dozen or more points in 2016, it’s a dead heat.
In North Carolina, there are at least two options that come to mind that match the military background model for our Senate race. The most-discussed for the past few months has been State Senator Jeff Jackson, a Democrat who has skyrocketed in the state and is seen as a rising star. Earlier in the year, it seemed that Jackson’s entry into the race was inevitable; lately, though, talk has died down, and it is unclear whether he plans to enter the fray.
Last week on NC SPIN, one of the panelists suggested that Cal Cunningham, a current candidate for Lt. Governor, had been floated as a potential candidate for the Senate race. While it may seem strange to switch races, at this point in the 2020 election there would be little to no repercussions. Anybody paying attention to the races now is invested enough in state politics to have a political preference, and if they lean towards Democrats, they probably care more about having a viable candidate for Senate than Lt. Gov, as important as the latter role is.
Whether Jackson, Cunningham or any other prominent Democrat in North Carolina will jump into the race remains to be seen. One thing is clear, though: North Carolina Democrats are ready to coalesce behind a candidate for US Senate, sooner rather than later.
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.