Politics & Government

Tillis draws Senate primary challenge from Raleigh businessman

This story has been updated to correct Tucker’s relationship with the John Locke Foundation.

Sen. Thom Tillis has drawn a Republican challenger in 2020.

Garland Tucker III, the retired chairman and CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation and an author, filed paperwork with the Federal Election Committee to run in the Republican primary on Monday. Tucker wrote “Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Changed America — Jefferson to Reagan” and was a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation and on the board of the Raleigh-based Civitas Institute.

Charles Hellwig, the former Wake County GOP chair and current 4th District GOP chair, is serving as campaign manager. Longtime Republican political consultant Carter Wrenn is also working for Tucker. An official campaign announcement is expected soon.

“A group of us have been encouraging Garland to run,” Wrenn said in a telephone interview. “Like a lot of conservatives, I look at Washington and just shake my head. Tillis is sort of a typical Washington politician.”

Tillis, a former N.C. House speaker, defeated Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan to win the Senate seat in 2014. Though he has voted reliably with President Donald Trump, 94.7 percent of the time, according to 538.com, Tillis has earned criticism from some conservatives for his position on immigration, protecting the special counsel and Trump’s national emergency declaration.

Garland Tucker

Tillis wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post opposing Trump’s national emergency, but ultimately voted along with the president’s position — earning national attention for his change of heart.

Some Republican officials said, at that time, they would support a challenger. Several sitting U.S. House Republicans ruled out a challenge to Tillis, including Rep. Mark Walker from Greensboro, who initially left the door open. A recent Morning Consult poll found that Tillis lost 12 percentage points of support among North Carolina Republicans in early 2019.

“Running against an incumbent is never easy. It’s an uphill battle, but Tillis’ weakness with conservative Republicans is encouraging,” Wrenn said. “I wouldn’t be supporting someone who wasn’t to the right of Tillis.”

Tucker, a graduate of Harvard Business School, worked in the finance industry for much of his career, starting in the securities business in 1975. He co-founded a corporate travel services company in the 1990s and then sold it to co-found Triangle Capital Partners, according to Bloomberg. He was chairman of Triangle Capital Corporation, an eventual successor, from 2006 until his retirement. Triangle Capital Corporation sold to Barings in 2018 for nearly $1 billion, according to the Triangle Business Journal.

Tucker has never run for office, Wrenn said.

“He’s just the kind of person you need in the Senate,” said Wrenn, who has been friends with Tucker and his family for decades. “He’s not a finger-in-the-wind politician. I don’t think Garland Tucker is going to go to Washington and all of a sudden start playing politics.”

The Tillis campaign said in a statement that Tucker is an “anti-Trump activist.”

“(Tucker) has a long record of attacking the President and appears to be assembling an anti-Trump team. 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,” said Tillis campaign manager Luke Blanchat.

Tucker expressed skepticism about Trump prior to the 2016 election. In a column published in The News & Observer before the 2016 election, Tucker outlined his reluctance to Trump’s campaign, but ultimately supported him over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“As a conservative and a lifelong Republican, I stoutly resisted Trump’s nomination. First, I was for Scott Walker, then Marco Rubio, then Ted Cruz and finally John Kasich. Hence, my conscience is clear — I am in no way responsible for Trump as the nominee. But, alas, however we got to this point and whatever it means for the future, I’m left with the decision of Trump v. Clinton,” Tucker wrote in September 2016.

Tucker expressed concern, as a Christian, about voting for Trump, whom he described as “a twice-divorced, self-acknowledged adulterer who has, in the course of this campaign, uttered some of the most unkind, disgusting comments ever made by any American politician.”

“It never feels very good to arrive at a decision via negative reasoning, but it’s far easier for me to commit never to vote for Clinton — and the 2016 Democratic platform — than it is to commit to vote for Trump. However, politics is always ultimately about pursuing the possible — not the ideal. For conservatives who could never vote for Clinton, the resulting by-product is necessarily a vote for Trump,” Tucker wrote.

Wrenn said Tucker agrees with Trump on the issues and is now convinced of the president’s conservative credentials.

Tillis’ campaign against Hagan was the most expensive Senate campaign in history at the time. Tillis raised $1.1 million in the first quarter of 2019 and has $2.9 million cash on hand, according to the FEC. Tillis is former vice chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“Tillis has been a strong conservative fighter for North Carolina. This will prove to be nothing more than a quixotic adventure for a wealthy, out-of-touch liberal who was talked into this by a past-his-prime political consultant looking for a paycheck,” said Joanna Rodriguez, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Several Democrats have announced they are running for the seat, including former Mecklenburg county commissioner Trevor Fuller, state Sen. Erica Smith and Raleigh tax attorney Eva Lee. The Senate primary is March 3, 2020, the same day as the presidential primary in the state.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.