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KERNERSVILLE, N.C. (WGHP) – Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker celebrated his 54th birthday on Saturday in a big way: He invited hundreds of friends to a church and told them he is running for governor of North Carolina.

Proclaiming to a crowd at Triad Christian Academy in Kernersville, Walker announced he would seek the Republican nomination to succeed term-limited Democrat Roy Cooper as the state’s chief executive, a job the GOP has held only 4 of the past 30 years.

Walker named his three top priorities as being “educational opportunities,” “economic freedom” and fighting against advocacy for transgender youth.

With regard to education, Walker voiced his support for private school vouchers and the idea of “funding the students over the systems.”

Former Rep. Mark Walker announces run for governor in Kernersville. (WGHP)
Former Rep. Mark Walker announces run for governor in Kernersville. (WGHP)

“Until we’re able to get in there and clean out the tenureship, clean out all the different things that are programmed in this generation, we’re going to keep dealing with the same problems over and over again,” Walker said. “We’ve got to return power to the school boards and the parents, not DC or the Raleigh bureaucracies.”

In terms of business, Walker advocated for combatting labor shortages with the support of the community college system and helping the agricultural industry expand.

“You need somebody with a little business background,” he said. “You need someone that understands strictly how this operates. You need someone with a skill set that can manage legislative bodies.”

Walker also spoke out against the idea of children “choosing their own gender and their own sex,” calling it an “abomination.”

“I will be tireless in my fight against the intellectual pursuit of our elites promoting child mutilations that are damaging our children and our futures,” Walker said. “Listen to me clearly. We know who these people are and we will call them out by name. I’m talking to you Marci Bowers and Dane Whicker and others that are in these intellectual education arenas that are promoting that children as young as six or seven should be choosing their own gender and their own sex. It’s an abomination, and, as your governor, I will fight day and night to war against such evil.”

On her website, Bowers, a gynecologist and surgeon, touts herself as the “first person in history to have delivered 2,000 babies and performed 2,000 vaginoplasties for transgender women.” 

Whicker is co-director of CTSI Equity in Research and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. Whicker told NC Newsline, a nonprofit news organization, that part of his work includes “working with parents to help them advocate for safe environments for transgender and non-binary children, youth and adolescents.”

Walker’s sentiments echo Robinson’s who recently accused clinics of performing “transgender surgery” on children as young as five.

Surgery for transgender minors goes against medical recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and options for gender-affirming care that is practiced with minors are largely reversible. For young children, the AAP recommends limiting gender affirmation to social transition, such as using a new name and different pronouns. Pre-teens or young teens may be prescribed puberty-blocking drugs, which are reversible. Hormone therapy is typically reserved for adolescents onward and is partially reversible depending on the length of time they’re used, according to the AAP. Surgical options are largely reserved for adults, but older teens have the option depending on their medical history and doctor recommendations.

Shortly after his announcement, the North Carolina Democratic Party released a statement against Walker’s candidacy.

“Mark Walker joins a growing field of GOP candidates that are all missing the mark for North Carolinians with extreme agendas that would ban abortion with no exceptions, gut our public schools, and set off job-killing culture wars that put working families in harm’s way,” North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton said in the statement. “While they’re caught up in a messy and chaotic primary that is sure to leave a mark, voters will be wising up to the reality of their dangerous policies and ready to mark the end of their career in politics next November.” 

Walker, a resident of Greensboro who grew up in the Florida panhandle, served three terms in the 6th Congressional District (2015-2019) and sought the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in 2022, a seat eventually won by fellow Rep. Ted Budd of Advance.

Governor’s race

Walker is the third person with roots in Piedmont Triad to enter the GOP primary, joining State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a native of Winston-Salem and graduate of UNC-Greensboro, and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a native of Greensboro and graduate of UNCG.

Attorney General Josh Stein is the only announced Democrat in the field, and Libertarian candidate Mike Ross is running as well.

Walker’s candidacy had been speculated for several months, and he had said he was “prayerfully listening” whether to enter the race. He has been advised by Tim Murtaugh, vice president for National Public Affairs, who has worked with national campaigns, but had not announced a campaign staff or launched a website. Walker 4 NC is registered with the North Carolina Board of Elections.

“He and his wife, Kelly, have heard from pastors, officials, and groups across North Carolina, all encouraging him to run, and have been discussing it and praying about it with their close friends and family,” Murtaugh said in an email before the announcement was scheduled.

Walker and Folwell both largely are in this race for the same reason: to offer an alternative to Robinson, the state’s highest-ranking elected Republican, who has the potential of becoming the state’s first Black governor but also has a polarizing history of conspiracy-theory-based far-right positions, attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and inflammatory social media posts.

In announcing his candidacy in March during a speech in Winston-Salem, Folwell said Robinson has “spent all this time attacking people instead of attacking the important problems that our citizens are facing.” He told The Assembly that “nobody [had] heard of this guy 1,000 days ago. I’m going to let him be who he’s been over the last 1,000 days, and I’m going to be who I’ve been over the last 25 years as a public servant.”

Robinson rose to political prominence after he berated the Greensboro City Council in 2018 about the city’s ban on a gun show following the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The video of that speech went viral, assisted largely by none other than Walker, who helped Robinson find the spotlight on Fox News and other conservative outlets. That helped to propel Robinson into the lieutenant governor’s office in his first election.

During that time, the two men talked regularly, Walker told WRAL, but that changed when Robinson endorsed Budd in the 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 told WRAL last fall. “I don’t hold grudges. We were talking on a weekly basis. That doesn’t exist anymore.”

Walker also recently issued a veiled comment about Robinson’s history of owing tax money and filing for bankruptcy.

“I believe being transparent is crucial in making sure candidates’ rhetoric is consistent with how they live their own lives,” Walker told WGHP. “The very basis of someone’s character is honoring one’s financial obligations.

“As a conservative, how can you lead on fiscal responsibility, if you can’t manage your own finances? Hardships can occur but if someone has a long history of defrauding people and institutions, they wouldn’t be allowed to serve on a church finance committee, much less be considered a candidate for governor.”

Walker’s first run

Walker, a native of Dothan, Alabama, and the son of a Baptist minister, graduated from Carolina University (formerly Piedmont International) in Winston-Salem with a degree in religious studies and was ordained by the Southern Baptist Church. He began his ministerial career in Winston-Salem and has led churches in North Carolina and Florida.

The father of three, Walker was serving on the staff at Lawndale Baptist Church when he was recruited to enter the 2014 Republican primary in the 6th District. Never before a candidate, Walker pitched himself as the “non-politician” in a race to succeed longtime Rep. Howard Coble (R-Greensboro), who was retiring.

Phil Berger Jr. (left) and Mark Walker in 2014

The 9-person GOP field included current Greensboro City Council member Zach Matheny and former Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips, but the clear front-runner was Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr., the son of the leader of the state Senate – perhaps the state’s most powerful Republican – who was competing in a district that included his home county and all of his father’s district.

Although Berger Jr. led the primary field with 34.3% of the 44,136 votes cast, that did not reach the threshold (since lowered) to avoid a runoff, and Walker was a surprising second, with 25.2%.

Their 2-month campaign in the runoff was intense and contentious. The News & Record in Greensboro assigned reporters to each campaign, and every event and debate drew scrutiny.

Walker won in Rockingham and almost every county in the runoff, getting 60.1% of the vote in a stunning runaround. He then earned 58.7% in defeating attorney Laura Fjeld in the general election. He easily won re-election in 2016 (59.2%) and 2018 (56.5%),

In Congress, he was a reliable conservative voice, rising to chair the Republican Study Committee. He served on the Judiciary, Ways and Means, Oversight and Accountability, Energy and Commerce and Foreign Affairs committees.

He also was on the field that day in 2017 with the Republican baseball team when a man with an assault rifle started shooting at the players, severely wounding Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) and three others.

Walker told NBC News that day that the “gunman was there to kill as many Republican members as possible.” He was not injured.

Change in course

Before the 2020 election, courts ordered the congressional maps for North Carolina to be redrawn because they were unconstitutional. Guilford County (and Greensboro), which had been split between the 6th and 13th Districts, was made whole in the new 6th, which eliminated the rural counties to the north and east and included Winston-Salem, making it a Democratic stronghold.

Walker decided not to seek re-election, and Kathy Manning (D-Greensboro) won the first of her two terms. When U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican, announced in 2016 that his second term would be his last, Walker was one of the first to enter the race.

At first, he seemed to be the front-runner in a developing field. He won straw polls at GOP events as he traveled around the state, and his conservative record, folksy geniality and polished presence seemed to be drawing attention.

But then former Gov. Pat McCrory of Jamestown, who had lost re-election in 2016 to Democrat Roy Cooper, entered the race, and so did Budd, who had been first elected in 2016 with the backing of conservative super PAC Club For Growth.

Then, during the state GOP convention at Greenville in June 2021, former President Donald Trump surprisingly backed Budd, an unexpected announcement that stunned both Walker and McCrory.

As the General Assembly began to draw electoral maps for 2022, a new district that appeared to favor a Republican candidate took shape, and Walker was under pressure – even from Trump – to leave the Senate race and run for Congress. He declined, saying God had called him to run for the Senate.

Armed with more cash from Club for Growth and Trump’s endorsement, Budd immediately surged ahead in polls. Walker and McCrory said he was being elected with big money from out of state, but Budd declined to take the debate stage against them. Trump returned for a rally in North Carolina – with Robinson participating – to reiterate his support.

Budd swept the 14-candidate primary with 58.6%, and Walker finished third with 9.2%. As Budd campaigned to nip Democrat Cheri Beasley and take the seat, Walker consulted with judicial candidates who gave Republicans control of state courts.

Leading the polls

Recent polls show Robinson clearly is the favorite to win the nomination for governor and perhaps even defeat Stein head-to-head.

The John Locke Foundation, a right-leaning think tank, recently released a poll of likely GOP voters that showed Robinson getting 43% of the vote, followed by Walker (9%), Ag Commissioner Steve Troxler (8%, although he has not announced a run) and Folwell (4%). But the poll also said that 42% of women and 31% of men were undecided. 

Carolina Forward, a left-leaning publication, released a poll of likely North Carolina voters that showed Robinson with a slight lead (46% to 43%) over Stein, with 11% undecided. A smaller poll conducted in March for the General Assembly showed Robinson with a 5-percentage-point lead (44% to 39%) over Stein, with 17% undecided.

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Kyle Van Zandt, who managed Walker’s defeat of Berger Jr. in 2014, said Walker’s campaign might be suited to overtake Robinson’s lead in the polls.

“There’s a lot of doubt that Robinson can deliver a win in the general election,” Van Zandt told The Assembly. “A lot of people are looking for other viable candidates for this. Walker has a proven track record of standing firm in his principles and not alienating people who may not agree with him.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified former Rep. Howard Coble.