Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis might have torpedoed his own 2020 re-election bid in February, when he penned an op-ed for The Washington Post in opposition to President Donald Trump’s emergency border declaration. Time will tell.

Tillis’ high-profile defiance of the White House on an issue central to Trump’s election — and extraordinarily important among the Republican Party’s base — instantly spawned discussion of a primary challenge from the junior North Carolina senator’s right.

Reaction from fellow Republicans was swift and severe. Congressman Mark Walker, whose 6th District includes parts of Greensboro and Guilford County, said, “Voting with the Democrats on something this important — I don’t see where that helps him.”

In the end, despite his high-profile op-ed, Tillis voted in favor of Trump’s position on the border. But the damage was done. Tillis’ critics point out that he also co-sponsored a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller, and that he declined to cut foreign aid.

Conservatives frown on indecision, wavering and fence-straddling. Following Tillis’ op-ed in the Post, and his subsequent, contradictory vote on the Senate floor, his support among state GOP voters plunged by about 12 percentage points.

Pinpointing a representative’s philosophy is not an exact science, but, for what it’s worth, Tillis’ ratings from right-wing organizations are less than stellar.

The Conservative Review, for instance, gives Tillis a “liberty score” of 38%. For the sake of comparison, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a right-wing icon, is at 82%. The American Conservative Union gives Tillis a lukewarm 76.95 rating (as compared with Cruz at 99%). Thus far in 2019, Tillis has earned from FreedomWorks a resoundingly mediocre 43%, easily eclipsed by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, (100%) and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (98%).

Nevertheless, Tillis does not seem overly worried about a challenge in the Republican primary. He told Spectrum News, “I’m not concerned about winning a primary. I’m not concerned about getting re-elected. 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.”

North Carolina’s voters will make that determination.

If the first quarter of 2019 is any indication, Tillis could struggle. His approval rating among state Republican voters stands at 53%, which is second-worst in the country. In neighboring South Carolina, U.S. Lindsey Graham’s approval among GOP voters is a solid 80%.

Initially, the most likely primary challenger was believed to be Congressman Mark Walker, a favorite among North Carolina conservatives. But in recent weeks, Walker, who lives in Greensboro, has downplayed speculation about a Senate bid.

Enter Garland Tucker III, a Raleigh-based author and retired chief executive officer of Triangle Capital Corp. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Tucker is wealthy and has extensive ties to the state’s conservative network. He was a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation and has served on the board of the Civitas Institute. Both institutions are well-respected on the right.

Tucker is a prolific writer with a couple of books to his credit. In “Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders who Shaped America — Jefferson to Reagan,” he identifies five fundamental principles of conservative thought, including such staples as ordered liberty and limited government.

Tucker’s commentary has appeared in multiple high-profile forums, including the National Review and The Daily Caller. Among his influences are three giants of the intellectual right: Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr. The influence of such men bodes well for the political newcomer’s prospects.

Tucker’s resources are considerable, and he is a compelling public speaker. Already, his TV and radio ads are drawing attention. It remains to be seen whether Tucker can overcome a lack of name recognition and convert a rock-solid philosophical foundation into a winning electoral strategy.

But Tillis had better keep a close eye on his right flank.

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Charles Davenport Jr. is a News & Record columnist. His column appears the first and third Sundays of the month. Contact him at

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