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February 26, 2024 9:30 am

Local News

As Mark Walker Enters GOP Primary Race for Governor, a Party Weighs Statewide Appeal

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by Joe Killian, NC Newsline

When former Congressman Mark Walker takes the stage Saturday at the Triad Baptist Christian Academy in Kernersville, he’ll be mounting an uphill battle for the Republican nomination for governor. For Walker, it’s a familiar battlefield.

In 2014 Walker, then a politically unknown Baptist pastor from Greensboro, entered a crowded, bare-knuckle scrum of a GOP primary to replace former Congressman Howard Coble. All but written off by party big wigs and pundits alike, Walker bested a series of well-established political names for the open sixth district seat, winning a tough final run-off with Phil Berger Jr., son of the powerful President Pro Tem of the North Carolina Senate.

“He did seem to come out of nowhere and surprise a lot of people,” said Chris Cooper,  political scientist and professor at Western Carolina University. “Now he’s more established, but he’s running in a different environment.”

Walker managed to hold the seat for three terms before redistricting shifted his district, making it significantly more Democratic. He then ran for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Richard Burr, but failed to secure the endorsement of then-President Donald Trump. Trump instead offered his endorsement to Walker for another House seat, looking to clear the path to the Senate for Ted Budd. Walker stayed in the GOP senate primary instead, losing to a Trump-backed Budd.

In the GOP primary for governor, Walker faces two well established names who have already announced – State Treasurer Dale Folwell and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. Though vastly different in experience, temperament and rhetorical style, both Folwell and Robinson have won statewide office in North Carolina – something Walker has yet to do.

Folwell, a staid social conservative, brings decades of experience in elected office and a track record as a Republican leader. He worked his way up from the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board to four terms in the North Carolina House of Representatives. He followed that with a stint as Assistant Secretary of Employment Security at the North Carolina Department of Commerce before becoming the first Republican to become State Treasurer since Reconstruction. Folwell has held the statewide office for two terms.

Slow and steady versus combative and fiery

“Folwell’s pitch has been ‘slow and steady, that’s how I’ll win the race – and I’m not going to draw much ire,’” Cooper said. “And I think he’s right. He’s not going to draw much ire. But drawing ire can also draw deep, deep pockets.”

Robinson, a flamboyant and combative religious conservative with a stentorian preacher’s delivery, is already the presumptive favorite in the race, Cooper said. And ire is essential to his brand.

Robinson had no political experience before a 2018 Greensboro City Council meeting at which he gave a fiery speech against cancelling a gun show in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A video clip of the speech went viral online, given a big boost when then-Congressman Mark Walker shared it with his large online following. Robinson’s brand of righteous political anger was launched and he capitalized with speaking engagements to conservative groups, including a spot addressing the National Rifle Association’s annual convention that year. In a GOP then dominated by the combativeness and theatricality of Trump, Robinson parlayed that conservative celebrity into a successful run for Lt. Governor, becoming the first Black North Carolinian to hold that office.

“He was and is just a fundraising juggernaut,” Cooper said.

In that way he was like former Congressman Madison Cawthorn, Cooper said, whose confrontational and often melodramatic style also quickly catapulted him from obscurity to conservative celebrity to the halls of power in Washington, D.C. But the very traits that built Cawthorn’s brand led to a swift descent into Republican in-fighting and multiple scandals that ended his political career. By contrast, Cooper said, Robinson has endeared himself to the existing Republican power structure rather than bucking it like Cawthorn and, to a lesser extent, Walker.

That was never more evident than when Republican legislative leaders tapped Robinson to give the response to Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of the State address, Cooper said.

Legislative leaders provide early platform, if not an endorsement

“I think the moment they let him have the response to the State of the State was the moment he won the primary,” Cooper said. “That’s when they said ‘You’re our guy.’ They could have had anybody do that. It’s not a fait accompli that the Lt. Governor from the opposing party gets that response. But they gave him that platform. And I think that tells us all we need to know about who they think will win the primary.”

In April, when Robinson announced his run for governor from an Alamance County race track that became a political lightning rod at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger was on stage with him.

“Berger said he wasn’t endorsing him, but it says a lot that he’s with him in that moment, that the party’s top leaders are with him – giving him these outlets, sharing the stage,” Cooper said.

That show of unity and the political metaphor of a political event at a racetrack closed by COVID precautions distorted Robinson’s own history of butting heads with his own party over vaccination during the pandemic.

In a video that made the rounds online in 2021, Robinson told a crowd at a conservative event it is not the job of elected officials to encourage people to take a vaccine. Robinson said those doing so should be voted out of office. Both Berger and N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), the most powerful elected GOP leaders in the state, were then among the prominent Republicans encouraging vaccination as the best method of beating COVID-19.

Like so many controversial comments or potentially damaging episodes from Robinson’s life, that conflict was elided and quickly forgotten by his supporters in the party.

In his announcement speech, Cooper said, Robinson further showcased his Trump-esque ability to use controversies that would doom the political careers of most candidates from either party as examples of things he overcame to become the conservative champion he is today. From multiple bankruptcies and recent tax delinquencies to he and his wife aborting a child before their marriage, Robinson has managed to turn each potential political eruption into part of his origin story that has nothing to do with his current character or electability.

In Robinson’s announcement speech his his lack of experience became a strength, making him not just “another politician who spent their life climbing the political ladder.” Even the very recent rocky and unsuccessful personal, business and financial history before his sudden rise to political stardom became proof he is “someone who’s actually lived through the struggles of everyday North Carolinians.”

“It was really remarkable,” Cooper said.

Political success, tarnished relationships

Walker, Robinson and Cawthorn were once close allies. They regularly praised and defended each other in social media posts and made appearances across the state for The American Renewal Project, a conservative Christian nationalist group that rejects the separation of church and state and is working to put evangelical Christians in office. Both Walker and Robinson distanced themselves from Cawthorn as his political career imploded. Walker and Robinson later fell out over Robinson siding with Trump to endorse of Budd over Walker in the U.S. Senate race.

“Anytime you have somebody who’s promoting you as the best candidate for the U.S. Senate and does a 180-degree [turn], it does impact the relationship,” Walker said in an interview with WRAL last year. “I don’t hold grudges. We were talking on a weekly basis. That doesn’t exist anymore.”

Will the ‘brand of dependability’ sway primary voters?

While Folwell and Walker may be safer bets in a statewide race and less likely to politically implode in office like Cawthorn or Trump, Cooper said that brand of dependability is a harder sell in a primary. That’s where Robinson’s brand of us vs. them passion, even with its frequent flurries of sexist, anti-LGBTQ and antisemitic rhetoric, can be a sort of political rocket fuel attracting conservative followers and dollars.

An ideological and rhetorical difference between Robinson and Walker was on display this week. Both men have made their religious faith central to their political brands. Walker came to Raleigh to attend the override vote of the governor’s veto of a bill that would ban most abortions after 12 weeks, talking with both supporters of the bill and those protesting it. Robinson, who has publicly called for a complete ban on abortion, did not attend.

That sort of daylight between conservative candidates can be useful during primary season, when each candidate is looking to distinguish themselves while vying for conservative votes. Facing off against the Democrat in a statewide general election is another game, Cooper said.

Gov. Roy Cooper is term-limited and not running again. But he managed to unseat comparatively moderate Charlotte Republican Pat McCrory as governor and handily best Dan Forest, the more combative and religiously conservative former lieutenant governor whose playbook Robinson has in many ways borrowed during his period in the same office. State Attorney General Josh Stein is the only Democrat who has yet announced. Libertarian Mike Ross is also running, but most political observers in the state are looking to a face-off between Stein and the victor of the Republican primary. Robinson is seen as the presumptive favorite, but Republicans who know and have worked with each each of the GOP hopefuls say it’s too early to count any of them out.

“I’m not taking a side in the primary, but I know all of these guys and I think it’s going to be a very interesting race,” said N.C. Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), the House Majority Whip.

Like Hardister, each of the GOP gubernatorial hopeful have roots in the Piedmont Triad – Robinson and Walker are both from Greensboro while Folwell comes from the Winston-Salem area and graduated from UNC-Greensboro. This year’s state GOP convention will take place next month in Greensboro.

“In order for a Republican to be successful statewide, you have to speak to statewide issues,” Hardister said. “You have to speak to issues like jobs,  the economy, public safety, education, things like that. And you have to be able to tell people how you’re going to move the state forward. You travel the state, run a really good campaign and fundraise, but whatever you’re doing you have to understand the peoples’ concerns everywhere in the state and convey to them you hear and understand them.”

In advance of his weekend announcement, Walker has been attempting to do just that, making public appearances in High Point, New Bern, Rockingham County and Charlotte in addition to his appearance Tuesday in Raleigh. His official announcement event will be at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Triad Baptist Christian Academy, 1175 South Main Street in Kernersville.

“I think any of these guys has the potential,” Hardister said. “We’re just going to have to see how the season goes.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.