Politics & Government

They gave to Tillis in the past. Now they’re leading his GOP rival’s first fundraiser.

Garland Tucker campaign ad

A campaign ad on YouTube for Garland Tucker III, who is challenging U.S. Senator Thom Tillis in the North Carolina Republican primary.
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A campaign ad on YouTube for Garland Tucker III, who is challenging U.S. Senator Thom Tillis in the North Carolina Republican primary.

Steve Zelnak, the former CEO and chairman of the board at Raleigh-based Martin Marietta Materials, donated $5,000 to Sen. Thom Tillis in February. The donations weren’t shocking: He’d given to Tillis in 2014 and 2018.

On Wednesday night, however, Zelnak and his wife Judy will serve as chairmen for the first fundraiser for Tillis’ 2020 Republican challenger — Garland Tucker. It costs $5,600 per couple to be listed as a chairman for the event at the Carolina Country Club in Raleigh, according to an invitation obtained by McClatchy.

Of the 17 individuals or couples listed as chairmen for the event, at least five have donated to Tillis in the past, according to campaign finance records. Tucker himself donated $2,600 to Tillis in 2014.

Bob and Maria Luddy donated $7,800 to Tillis in 2014 during his first run for the U.S. Senate. Tillis, the speaker of the N.C. House at the time, emerged from an eight-way Republican primary and then defeated incumbent Kay Hagan in the general election.

But the Luddys, too, are listed as chairmen for Tucker’s event. Bob Luddy is the founder and chairman of the Raleigh-based CaptiveAire Systems. Luddy said his dissatisfaction with Tillis comes from the federal government’s spending and increasing debt and deficit.

“(Tucker) will absolutely hold the line on the spending bills,” said Luddy, who also founded Thales Academy, private schools that have more than 3,000 students in Wake County. “We have to get it across to the Congress. ... We cannot spend ourselves to death. We don’t have any realistic plan to ever pay that debt off.”

The national debt hit a record $22 trillion in February. The deficit is expected to be more than $1.1 trillion this year with federal spending outpacing revenue by $317 billion in the first quarter, according to data from the Congressional Budget Office. Tillis voted to raise spending caps in both 2015 and 2018, while Sen. Richard Burr of NC voted no.

Luddy, who served as chairman of the board of the conservative Civitas Institute, said that he plans to donate just to Tucker during the primary, but said he would vote for Tillis if he were to win the Republican nomination. Luddy said he did not know if he would donate to Tillis during the general election. In 2015, Luddy withheld a campaign contribution to NC House Republicans over tax policy and, what he deemed, a “liberal” spending policy.

Tucker, a Raleigh businessman and author of two books on conservative politicians, has not yet filed a campaign finance report. He joined the race in early May. Tucker was founder and former CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation. He said he is prepared to spend his own money in the campaign.

“It’s going to be an expensive process to take on an incumbent, so we’re not naive about that,” Tucker told McClatchy earlier this month. “We’re self-funding the start up, and we’re also at the same time cranking up a regular, conventional fundraising organization. We’re expecting as we make some progress to generate substantial funds away from mine.”

Carter Wrenn, a Tucker campaign consultant, said the candidate is “capable of funding several million dollars worth.”

Zelnak has given to many Republican Senate candidates over the past few years, including Martha McSally of Arizona, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Dean Heller of Nevada, David Perdue of Georgia and Burr. He also donated to Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican senator who ran for president in 2016.

The others who donated to Tillis in the past, but are serving as chairmen are Peggy and Cliff Benson, Sandra and Tom Henderson and Grey and Doug Vaughn.

“I supported Tillis, but I’m not going to do it again. We hear some of that,” Wrenn said.

Of the 52 individuals or couples listed as chairman ($5,600 per couple giving level), host ($2,000), co-host ($1,000) or sponsor ($500) of the event, at least 13 have donated to Tillis in the past.

Tillis raised $1.1 million in the first quarter of 2019 and has more than $2.9 million cash on hand for his re-election bid, according to the Federal Election Commission. Tillis attended a fundraiser with Vice President Mike Pence in Greensboro last week, but the money went to Trump Victory and not to Tillis.

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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.

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