KERNERSVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Ex-U.S. Rep. Mark Walker formally entered next year’s race for North Carolina governor on Saturday, saying that he's best suited to win the seat that has eluded Republicans for much of the past three decades, by attracting a diverse set of voters in the closely divided state.
Walker, a former Baptist pastor who rode the Tea Party wave to three terms in Congress, made the announcement to a crowd of 300 at a church in Kernersville in Forsyth County. If elected, he said he would provide a bulwark to federal policy intrusions, promote educational opportunity and economic freedom, and protect families and children on cultural issues.
He said he had a history, in both the pulpit and in Congress, of building bridges with unaffiliated and Democratic voters. He's been known for his efforts to work with minority groups, particularly on funding historically Black colleges. Black supporters were featured prominently at the announcement event.
“You’re fearfully and wonderfully made, and God created you uniquely and you have the potential and the ability to blow past any of these political elites that try to put a ceiling on the very potential that God created you to have,” he said at Triad Baptist Church. “That’s the kind of message that we need to get into all of our communities, and that’s the kind of message that I bring to Raleigh.”
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and State Treasurer Dale Folwell announced their GOP gubernatorial bids earlier in the spring. On the Democratic side, Attorney General Josh Stein got in the race in January. Primary elections are scheduled for March.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is barred by the state constitution from seeking a third consecutive term in the nation’s ninth-largest state.
While Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in the legislature and hold the most seats on the state Supreme Court, they’ve only held the governor’s job four years since 1993. The only election victory during that period was in 2012 with Pat McCrory.
Walker finished a distant third in the 2022 Republican U.S. Senate primary to eventual general election winner Ted Budd and to the second-place McCrory.
Walker acknowledged on Saturday to reporters that the current GOP primary favorite is Robinson, who was elected the state’s first Black lieutenant governor in 2020. Robinson is a popular speaker at conservative churches and organizations, as well as a strong fundraiser. But some Republicans have questioned whether Robinson’s aggressive style and blunt comments about LGBTQ+ rights, abortion and women's roles make him the party’s best choice to win a general election.
“What we need is a governor candidate that can withhold and withstand a level of scrutiny that we’ve never seen for the chief executive in North Carolina,” Walker said during his speech, without mentioning Robinson. “Republicans are going to have to ask themselves at some point does character and integrity still matter to us.”
A Robinson campaign spokesperson didn't immediately respond Saturday to an email seeking comment.
Walker pitched supporters to raise $1 million toward his candidacy by June 30 as a way to build traction for his campaign. Unless he's financially competitive, Walker's path to a primary victory seems narrow, said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at UNC Charlotte.
“It’s not clear there is a unique constituency within the Republican Party that Walker would be able to tap into as a means of beating Robinson,” Heberlig said.
Folwell, who has been treasurer since 2017, said Saturday in a text that while he welcomed Walker into the race he remained “uniquely qualified” to become governor because of his state financial responsibilities and government experience.
State Democratic Party chair Anderson Clayton said Walker joined a “growing field of GOP candidates that are all missing the mark for North Carolinians with extreme agendas” against abortion and public education and for “job-killing culture wars.”
Walker and Robinson had been close allies, the result of Walker’s distribution of Robinson’s 2018 gun-rights speech to the Greensboro city council that went viral — and in time vaulted Robinson to prominence. But Robinson’s endorsement of Budd — who also had President Donald Trump’s backing — changed that relationship, Walker has said. Trump, who will speak at next month's state GOP convention, hasn't weighed in on the governor's primary.
After the 2014 election, Walker, who turned 54 on Saturday, joined Congress — representing a Greensboro-area congressional district that was vacated by the retiring GOP Rep. Howard Coble. Walker had won a bruising Republican primary by upsetting the son of state Senate leader Phil Berger in a runoff. Walker soon led the influential Republican Study Committee in the House and was known for his anti-abortion views.
Walker chose in 2019 not to seek reelection in the following year when redistricting would have it made difficult to win. He launched his 2022 Senate bid in December 2020, but within months Budd had won Trump's endorsement at the 2021 state convention. Walker decided to stay in the Senate race even after Trump urged him to bow out and run for a U.S. House seat instead. He fell well behind in fundraising and won just 9% of the primary vote.