Mark Walker begins a 40-day sprint toward relevancy
Former Congressman Mark Walker laid out a gubernatorial campaign Saturday that's light on policy and heavy on electability
Mark Walker understands he’s a long shot to win the Republican nomination for governor. So his first goal is a much smaller one: relevancy.
Walker, a former congressman and Southern Baptist pastor from the Triad, launched his bid for North Carolina governor on Saturday with an unusually transparent look into his campaign strategy and a heavy emphasis on electability next November.
In front of a modest crowd of supporters at a church in Kernersville, he laid out a 40-day sprint to cement his place in the race.
By the time campaigns file finance reports on June 30, Walker said he’ll need to show at least $1 million in the bank — $500,000 for his campaign and $500,000 for independent PACs who support him.
That would still leave him far behind Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, whose polling numbers show him in a dominant position to win the primary. But it might give Walker some momentum to keep raising money and give Robinson a real competitor in the race.
“People across this state, from the business community to women's groups, they're looking at us and they're concerned about the candidate that is out front and has been running for two-and-a-half years. I'm not going to get into all the baggage and the background there,” Walker said toward the end of his kickoff speech.
“They're looking at us and they want to believe that [we] have the goods to be able to win.”
The battle for relevancy is not new for Walker. He’s spent the last few years trying to resurrect his political career, ever since being on the losing end of court-ordered redistricting in late 2019.
After 16 years as a pastor in Florida and the Triad, Walker launched his first campaign for office in 2014 for a Greensboro-area seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, who retired from the seat at the age of 83.
Walker finished second to Phil Berger Jr. in the crowded Republican primary, but Berger didn’t reach the vote threshold at the time to win outright. (Under current law, he would have. But Berger has done OK for himself — he’s now a state Supreme Court justice.)
Walker dominated in the runoff and subsequently won the general election for a safe Republican seat handily. He faced only token Democrat opposition in the following two election cycles and rose up the ranks of House leadership while carving out a reputation as a conservative lawmaker.
However, he found himself essentially without a district at the end of 2019, when the General Assembly was forced by the courts to redraw seats in a way that lost two GOP representatives. The 6th Congressional District became a primarily urban, left-leaning Greensboro district, and Walker chose not to run again. The seat was ultimately won by U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning.
That sent Walker searching for a way to continue public life. He reportedly considered a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis in 2020 and also weighed a run for lieutenant governor.
“He’s worked hard in the House, and I just think he’s trying to sort it out,” Tillis told Politico at the time. “Somebody like him I think has a place to play.”
Walker ultimately sat out the 2020 elections but jumped into the 2022 Senate race to replace Richard Burr. He was blindsided by former President Donald Trump’s surprise endorsement of Ted Budd at the NCGOP convention in 2021.
That endorsement kneecapped Walker’s candidacy, and he ended up finishing a distant third behind Budd and former Gov. Pat McCrory in the Republican primary (now-Sen. Budd earned 58.6% of the vote, with McCrory at 24.6% and Walker at just 9.2%).
This run for governor represents an equally difficult challenge. Most of North Carolina’s political establishment has cast its weight behind Robinson, with more than a dozen elected officials appearing at his campaign launch last month.
In a poll run by Republican consulting firm The Differentiators in December, the primary electorate supported Robinson over Walker in a head-to-head, 58% to 8%.
Walker knows all that, of course. His campaign pitch is about one thing: that he’s better suited than Robinson to win the general election.
Walker’s campaign launch speech was relatively light on policy and didn’t lay out any major differences on the issues between him and Robinson. He briefly discussed education, particularly expanding school choice and giving more power to parents and less to Washington and Raleigh bureaucracies.
He also mentioned fighting gender ideology, especially banning so-called gender reassignment surgeries for children. “It's an abomination, and as your governor, I will fight day and night against such evil,” Walker said. Neither varies from standard conservative positions.
Instead, while he never mentioned Robinson by name, he took open shots at the front-runner in the race on three major fronts: The tenor of their messaging, the ability to withstand a big-dollar negative campaign, and the ability to recruit new businesses to North Carolina while in office.
All three are significant concerns.
Democrats have already launched a scorched-earth campaign against Robinson, pumping out snippets of speeches he’s made over the years about the Second Amendment, women’s issues and the LGBT agenda. Robinson’s speaking style lends itself to soundbites that could leave moderate voters unsettled. Tens of millions of dollars are expected to pour into this governor’s race, making it the most expensive in the state’s history.
“All eyes are on this state,” Walker said Saturday. “What we need is a governor candidate that can withstand a level of scrutiny that we've never seen for the chief executive in North Carolina. Because they're coming after us.”
Walker also generally has a much more upbeat and positive demeanor. He touted his relationship with the state’s historically black colleges and universities and said he’s better able to build bridges.
“It's not about how many bombs we can throw to the other side,” Walker said. “It's not just about making an argument, it's about making a difference.”
The third is a lesser-discussed but still real concern that a Robinson administration would derail the state’s economic development efforts. The theory goes that as governor, Robinson would be continually sucked into controversial social issue debates and make CEOs wary of relocating to or expanding in North Carolina.
Walker touted the state’s efforts in building finance, biotech and aeronautics industries, and said it’s crucial that the next governor be able to land major enterprises.
"We are on the precipice of securing manufacturers to bring to this state that would provide economic security for the next generation," Walker said. “I know that's not the biggest culture war, red-meat talking point. But you need a governor in this state who can lead both on education and also the economy.”
Walker does hew much closer than Robinson to the “generic Republican” template that performs well in North Carolina’s statewide elections. However, he does have some baggage of his own.
Despite serving in Congress, Walker has little name recognition and would need to spend thousands of dollars building a profile. He’s also last stature in the political arena over the past few years. The perception could be that he’s running purely for his own vanity and political ambition rather than a call for service.
Not helping his case: At a few points Saturday, Walker seemed to forget which office he was running for, and once he even said he was running for Congress.
Walker was also tangentially tied to the federal corruption investigation that took down former NCGOP chairman Robin Hayes, though there was never any allegation of wrongdoing. While likely not very damaging to Walker, the issue would provide fodder for opponents in a general election.
Will Dale Folwell drop out of the race?
Walker’s entry into the race complicates things for the other Robinson opponent. State Treasurer Dale Folwell announced in March that he would run for governor, with similar attack lines against Robinson.
Folwell is in an even more dismal polling position than Walker. And he has another major disadvantage: time.
While Walker currently holds no public office, Folwell takes his job seriously and is meticulous about separating his office from his campaign. He won’t even use the state of North Carolina’s WiFi to speak to reporters about his campaign, as WFAE reporter Steve Harrison found out.
Folwell also does not appear to have taken any major steps toward a real campaign for governor.
Walker, on the other hand, is likely to be a vigorous campaigner and will at least set up the infrastructure to launch a legitimate bid for the governorship.
North Carolina currently requires only a 30% plurality to win a primary election. There’s no real strategy to try to get to a run-off and hope for the best. The March primary will be here quicker than you realize, and it’s likely in Folwell’s best interest to drop out of the race.
Does Mark Walker have a chance?
Let’s say Walker hits the $1 million benchmark by the next campaign filing date. Does he then have a path to victory in March? Maybe, but it would require a major implosion from the Robinson campaign.
Like Trump, a lot of Robinson’s downsides are already baked into his primary polling numbers. Republican voters generally already know that he’s said controversial things in speeches, and most of them are fine with it. It will definitely be an issue in the general election, but not so much in the primary.
Fewer GOP voters may know about his bankruptcies and tax delinquencies, but that doesn’t seem like enough to torpedo him even if Walker tried to make them stick.
No, an implosion would likely require one of two things. One would be some major misstep on the campaign trail. It’s hard to imagine what Robinson would say over the next few months that would kill his candidacy, especially now that he’s taking a much more cautious approach in public. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Or two, opposition researchers could dig up some damaging material that comes out between now and March. Even as a private citizen, Robinson was a prolific publisher on social media — and Democrats are already spending millions surfacing past statements he’s made. A lot has come out already, with a few new tidbits in the past week, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re sitting on some material for next fall.
What Walker’s team needs is different from what the Democrats are compiling. It’s possible that they will find something. But it feels unlikely.
Still, “hope for a Robinson implosion” seems to be the only realistic approach — and the one Walker is taking. The speaker who gave the invocation at Walker’s kickoff rally implied as much. He closed his prayer asking God to “train our hands to war and our fingers to fight, and help us to remember that giants do fall.”
3 things of note
General Assembly overrides veto on North Carolina's moderate abortion bill
What's happening: Both chambers of the General Assembly voted Tuesday to override Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of Senate Bill 20, which restricts elective abortions after the first trimester of pregnancy and provides tens of millions of dollars to help support mothers and their children. The override came down strictly along partisan lines: All 30 Republicans in the Senate and all 72 Republicans in the House voted to override the veto, with no Democrats in favor. Rep. Ted Davis, the New Hanover County Republican whose vote was most in question, did ultimately vote in favor of the override after walking out of the initial vote on the bill.
I've written quite a bit about this issue before, so I won't go into it fully again. But I do want to highlight a statement issued after the veto override by Rep. Tricia Cotham, the Mecklenburg County representative who recently changed from Democrat to Republican and was the target of an intense pressure campaign to change her vote. It's well worth the read in its entirety. But in short, it pretty well encapsulates what this bill hopes to accomplish and undercuts the bad-faith arguments that Democrats have made against it.
“I understand that there are extremists on both sides of the abortion issue. Some of the absolutists believe abortion is unacceptable in any circumstance and some of the absolutists believe aborting a perfectly healthy child in the 40th week of pregnancy is morally acceptable. I cannot support either of these extreme positions,” she wrote. “After extensive review, I believe this bill strikes a reasonable balance on the abortion issue and represents a middle ground that anyone not holding one of the two extremist positions can support.”
Why this matters: While this new law does not prevent the majority of abortions in North Carolina, it does serve as a significant statement that the state values the sanctity of life. Politically, this is a major defeat for Gov. Roy Cooper. He used every tool and trick he has at his disposal to prevent the override, holding a major rally in downtown Raleigh and even visiting the home districts of legislators to put pressure on them. It wasn't enough, and that should embolden General Assembly leaders to press harder on their agenda after several years of being stymied.
What comes next: The General Assembly has a number of bills on its plate that are certain to face a gubernatorial veto. A bill banning critical race theory in schools comes to mind, as well as one to prevent boys from competing in girls' sports and one to expand school choice programs. All three are likely to go to the governor's desk, face a veto and head to an override vote. The result of Senate Bill 20 is a good sign the Republican supermajority will hold.
Voter ID to go into effect starting this fall
What's happening: Just a few weeks after the state Supreme Court ended North Carolina's years-long battle over photo voter ID, the State Board of Elections announced that ID requirements would go into effect for municipal elections held this fall.
County board of election will be able to actually issue photo IDs during early voting. To get one, the person will need to provide their name, date of birth and the last four numbers of their Social Security number. This follows state law. However, it's unclear how the state will verify identities using the Social Security numbers.
People can vote without showing ID by filling out an exception form, or they can cast a provisional ballot and return to the county board of elections office to show ID later.
Student IDs from state universities will ultimately be accepted, but the State Board of Elections hasn't determined which qualify yet.
Why this matters: Voter ID is overwhelmingly popular with the people of North Carolina as a relatively easy way to shore up the integrity of the electoral system. The process also adds another dynamic for campaign legal teams in the aftermath of a close election, potentially adding hundreds more ballots to the list to review.
What comes next: The first elections to use voter ID will begin in September. There seems to be little chance this will be blocked by litigation again.
N.C. Senate unveils budget proposal with steeper tax cuts, lower raises
What's happening: The state House has already passed its version of the biennial budget, and now the Senate has unveiled and quickly passed its own proposal. The overall spending numbers are virtually identical: Roughly $30 billion for the coming year, and $31 billion for next year. However, the Senate version of the budget cuts personal income tax rates faster than the House proposal while raising teacher and state employee pay at a slower rate. The Senate version also includes expanding school choice as part of the budget, while the House version does not. Carolina Journal has a pretty good breakdown of the differences and similarities between the two budgets here.
Why this matters: The two budgets provide an interesting contrast in philosophy. The House prioritizes employee salary raises, while the Senate prioritizes tax cuts. This is a legitimate debate that's worthy of having, and it will be interesting to see where they net out. My guess is it will be somewhere in the middle: More tax relief than the House wanted, with higher raises than the Senate wanted.
What comes next: The budget now heads to the conference committee, where the two chambers will hammer out these differences. The result should be released by June 15. That gives the General Assembly plenty of time to address the host of other pressing issues it has to tackle — including redrawing electoral districts.
1 good idea from another state
Alabama considers bill to require electronic devices to automatically enable anti-pornography blockers
The Alabama House has passed a bill that would require electronic device manufacturers to automatically enable features that block pornographic content. Even tech-savvy parents often do not know about these features or how to use them properly. It's encouraging to see states take a tougher stance against pornography. Louisiana, for example, passed a law earlier this year to require porn sites to use age-verification software to keep children from accessing them. Porn addiction and children's access to this material are major issues facing the country, and it would be good for North Carolina to address them, as well.
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