Kirk Kovach: In US Senate primary, can Tillis overcome chaos and finish on top?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 6, 2019

By Kirk Kovach

Chaos is a ladder.

So said Petyr Baelish, or Littlefinger as he was known, a character in the massively popular Game of Thrones series on HBO.

Lord Baelish made use of chaos and disruption in the kingdom to advance his own interests. He saw chaos not as something to fear but something to leverage in his own pursuit of power.

That leads us, in a roundabout way, to the U.S. Senate primary unfolding now in North Carolina.

While it is too early to make claims of chaos in the primaries, on either side, the seeds are there. They need only to grow.

Start on the Republican side: Incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis is in a pickle. Tillis ran successfully in 2014 to be a rather moderate Republican, hailing from the Charlotte area and mirroring the country club tendencies popular in conservative circles in the Queen City.

But then came Trump, the ultimate agent of chaos. He shook up any rigid orthodoxy that may have required Republicans to comport themselves in a certain way, and the base of the party loved it. Born out of the unrest of the Tea Party, Trump eschewed the conservative tendencies of small government and free trade, instead doubling down on cultural battles and social issues that divide the country.

Now, since 2016, adherence to the Trump brand is as important in a Republican primary as any particular stance on issues. Tillis was skeptical of Trump in the past, but by and large supports him as a senator. Any instance where he may have disagreed with the president, including when he offered an op-ed in the Washington Post, is overshadowed by his quick acquiescence.

All things considered, Tillis seems to vote more in pursuit of self-preservation than toward any particular ideological end.

Tillis’ apparent discomfort with the Trump presidency has opened a clear path for a primary opponent to flank him from the right.

Enter Garland Tucker. Tucker is a wealthy businessman from the Raleigh area, who is deeply embedded in the conservative intellectual movement in North Carolina.

Though he also indicated doubt about a Trump presidency, Tucker now hopes to unseat Tillis by sticking as close to Trump as possible while depicting Tillis as hostile to the president.

Recent polls have shown Tillis barely securing half of his own party in North Carolina; consistently, he garners somewhere less than 60% Republican support, hardly reassuring to an incumbent.

Tillis’ weakness within his own party and Tucker’s lackluster bona fides with Trump supporters present another opportunity.

Mark Walker, a conservative firebrand and member of Congress from North Carolina, has been floated as another potential entry into the primary fray.

While the two current candidates have demerits with the Trump crowd, Walker has been a vocal proponent and is well-known and liked in the conservative movement, being a critical figure in the Freedom Caucus.

As things stand, Tillis will likely beat Garland Tucker in a primary. Voters like to say they prefer someone new, but at the end of the day it’s more likely they pull the lever for the guy they know already.

That said, if Walker were to jump into this race and make it a three-way battle for the nomination, I would become bullish on somebody other than Tillis to be on the ballot next November.

If chaos truly is a ladder, somebody has to come out on top.

Kirk Kovach is a Rowan County native who writes for