Politics & Government

Some Republicans fear a ‘circle of death’ primary could hurt their Senate chances

An escalating intra-party feud has some Republicans worried about holding Thom Tillis’s U.S. Senate seat next year — even before Democrats find a top-tier candidate to oppose him.

Tillis continues to fend off challenges in his bid for a second term. Republican Garland Tucker already is airing TV ads. And the conservative Club for Growth is pushing GOP Rep. Mark Walker to run after commissioning a poll that called Tillis “a weak incumbent” vulnerable in a primary.

The race is so contentious that Politico ran a story this week headlined, “Return of the Republican civil war?”

“If Tillis gets through the primary, which I expect he will, then we’ll see the consequences of the Republican primary circle of death being a much tougher general (election) for Republicans to win,” said GOP consultant Larry Shaheen, chairman of Mecklenburg County Young Republicans.

The main point of contention: loyalty to President Donald Trump. Tillis and Tucker each claim to be the stronger supporter.

In the 2016 campaign, Tucker, a Raleigh businessman, called Trump a “flawed candidate.” He acknowledged that in a statement Friday.

“Like other conservatives I had my doubts about Mr. Trump,” Tucker said. “Without a policy record, I questioned whether he would govern as a conservative. . . . I could not be more delighted, and frankly amazed, at how he has transformed this country in the last two years.”

Tillis allies don’t buy it.

“It is laughable that a charlatan like Garland Tucker thinks he can make this race into a question of who can better support our booming economy under President Trump,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund. “North Carolina needs a senator who will work with the president – not one . . . now lying to cover his tracks.”

In his statement, Tucker said Tillis “has publicly opposed the president numerous times.” Among other things, he pointed to Tillis’s February op-ed in the Washington Post in which he said he opposed Trump’s emergency declaration to build a border wall. The next month he voted for it.

“When people learn about his voting record, his support collapses,” said Tucker strategist Carter Wrenn.

Tillis boasts a record of voting with Trump 95% of the time, according to 538, an analytics website owned by ABC News. Wrenn dismisses 538 as a liberal site. He points to Heritage Action, a conservative group that gave Tillis a 59% conservative voting rating. Walker’s rating is 96%.

I make no apology for having only one member of the entire North Carolina delegation who has a record of voting with the president’s policies more than me,” Tillis told Spectrum News this week. “So we’ve got a very solid voting record with the president. But it’s not a rubber stamp.”

Meanwhile, the anti-tax Club for Growth also opposed Trump in 2016, spending $7 million against his candidacy. The Club, which supported state Sen. Dan Bishop in the recent 9th District GOP primary, rarely opposes Republican incumbents.

Walker could not be reached. But spokesman Jack Minor said the Greensboro congressman has declined to rule out a Senate bid. The Club for Growth poll, he said, reflects “what we’ve seen on the ground.”

“I’m surprised (the Club) would be encouraging a pathway that hurts the president,” Tillis strategist Paul Shumaker told Politico. “No one benefits from a combative primary in a battleground.”

Would a primary hurt?

Republican intra-party feuds have a history in North Carolina.

For more than two decades, there were battles between the National Congressional Club and other allies of Sen. Jesse Helms, a national leader of the New Right, and those of more traditional conservatives such as former Govs. Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin. Those fights were ideological.

“It has only superficial similarities to the Congressional Club-Holshouser-Martin days,” said John Hood, chairman of the conservative John Locke Foundation. “This is much more an alignment with the presidential campaign rather than an ideological (split).”

Political scientist Tom Eamon of East Carolina University said the ideological factions that existed earlier no longer exist. “I don’t think that we exactly have the moderate forces we had then,” he said.

The question is, would a heated primary hurt the eventual GOP nominee?

“That’s mostly coming out of Washington establishment groups,” said Wrenn. “When they get a primary they say, ‘My God, this is terrible!’ And start hollering about a civil war.”

Tucker has pledged to spend $1 million of his own money and raise even more. Hood said a costly primary would hurt the winner.

“It’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be a weaker candidate,” Hood said. “Sometimes primaries can be productive. But not if the primaries are very expensive and very bitter.”

Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, said even a heated primary could help the incumbent.

“While no intra-party feud is helpful as it divides loyalties and sucks up resources . . . this could potentially work to Tillis’ advantage,” she said. “Not only does it split whatever anti-Tillis vote that might exist, but he could end up looking like the perfect candidate to many Republican primary voters. . . Voters might think that Tillis must be doing something right to get attacked from all sides.”

Democrats are still hunting for an A-list candidate. They’re reportedly looking for former state Treasurer Janet Cowell.

Speaking to Spectrum News, Tillis downplayed any primary or general election challenges.

“I’m not concerned about winning a primary,” Tillis told Spectrum News. “I’m not concerned about getting re-elected … I know Mark Walker. I’ve worked with him. I consider him a colleague and a friend. . . I’m here to win on my record … and I think it’s a record that will serve me well in any primary and any general.”

Brian Murphy of McClatchy’s Washington bureau contributed.