Mark Walker leaves governor’s race for new, GOP drawn congressional district

Congressional seat is currently held by Democrat Kathy Manning

By: - October 26, 2023 11:05 am
Mark Walker talks to a woman with her back turned at the North Carolina General Assembly

Former US Rep. Mark Walker talks to abortion opponents at Legislative Building on May 16, 2023. (Photo: Lynn Bonner)

Former Congressman Mark Walker announced he will leave the race for governor Wednesday, and instead pursue a return to the U.S House via the state’s 6th Congressional District seat under newly redrawn maps more favorable to Republicans.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning, a Greensboro Democrat, has held the seat since 2021, when the district was redrawn and Walker chose not to run again. Walker made a bid for the GOP nomination for Senate seat vacated by Richard Burr, but came third in the primary. Sen. Ted Budd ultimately won that seat.

Rep. Kathy Manning
Rep. Kathy Manning – Photo:

Walker and his wife decided it was time to return to Washington, D.C., after seeing the new maps, he said in a statement Wednesday.

“With the new congressional district maps being made public last week, Kelly and I have been overwhelmed with the number of grassroots citizens and officials reaching out for us to consider taking the fight back to Congress,” Walker said. “Before I was redistricted out of North Carolina’s 6th district by a leftist lawsuit and a handful of Raleigh elites, I was honored to serve the people of High Point and central North Carolina in the U.S. Congress.”

Those “Raleigh elites” include the state leadership of Walker’s own party, with whom he has butted heads from the beginnings of his political career.

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 bigwigs and pundits alike, Walker bested a series of well-established political names for the open 6th District seat, winning a tough final run-off with Phil Berger Jr., son of the powerful President Pro Tem of the North Carolina Senate.

Walker spent six years in the U.S. House, was elected to chair the Republican Study Committee after one term, and served as vice chair of the Republican Conference. He has maintained relationships with the congressional colleagues in Washington, including newly elected Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, of Louisiana, who Walker calls “my dear friend.”

In his statement Wednesday, Walker said he has the support of  Johnson and more than 40 Republican Congressional members in his return bid, as well as nearly $500,000 in campaign pledges from supporters.

Walker’s reputation as a maverick within the mainstream of his own party continued after he was drawn into a less advantageous district in a process run by the North Carolina General Assembly’s Republican majority.

Walker refused to step aside for Budd in the Senate primary, rejecting overtures and promises of support for another House seat run — including from then President Donald Trump, who endorsed Budd over Walker. Earlier this year political history seemed to repeat itself when Walker entered the gubernatorial race despite Trump’s endorsement of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.

Walker helped to jumpstart Robinson’s political career, sharing a video of a pro-gun speech Robinson made before the Greensboro City Council with his large social network following and helping the moment go viral nationally. He also introduced him to a network of conservative Christian churches and activists with whom Robinson has remained close. But the two fell out over the Senate race, when Robinson wouldn’t support Walker in the face of Trump’s endorsement of Budd.

A photo of Robinson, Cawathorn and Robinson outside an American Renewal Project event.
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson poses with Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Rep. Mark Walker. (Photo: Screen grab from Walker’s Twitter feed)

In the last few months, as Robinson gained momentum as the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP gubernatorial primary, Walker has criticized Robinson’s anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ remarks as well as his long record of mismanaging his personal finances. On Wednesday, Walker didn’t say who he would endorse in the race as he stepped away from it.

“Transparently, it would be disingenuous of me to act as if there were a clear path in the gubernatorial race,” Walker said in his statement. “That door has not opened. We have some solid Republican candidates running for governor, and all would be superior to Democrat Josh Stein.”

Instead, Walker concentrated his remarks on a possible return to Washington, where the Republican in-fighting recently led to the historical ouster of the House speaker and three weeks of paralysis as the GOP failed to reach consensus on a new leader. With the election of Johnson, a Trump ally who worked to overturn the 2020 election, the party’s hard right flank appears ascendant.

“After spending a few days in DC this month, I’m reminded of the grind of congressional service that can be mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausting,” Walker said in his Wednesday statement. “However, there exists a radical movement designed to steal the very soul of our nation – including the hearts and minds of an entire generation. That’s why it’s crucial we have representation of leaders who live out conservative principles every day being grounded in genuine faith in our Creator, God Almighty.”

“It’s also why I’m announcing my plans to return to the U.S. House, placing the 6th District back to where it has historically been–represented by a conservative Republican,” Walker said.

In fact, despite many rounds of redistricting, the 6th Congressional District was represented by a nearly unbroken chain of Democrats from 1869 to 1981, when former  Republican Congressman Walter E. Johnson served a single term before losing to Democrat Robin Britt.

Britt lost to Howard Coble in 1985 and Coble held the seat until his retirement in 2015. Coble managed that long run by appealing to voters across the aisle, cannily avoiding public comments on hot-button culture war issues like same-sex marriage, even as he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and fielded death threats from infuriated conservatives after voting against more funding for the Iraq war in 2007.

In some ways, Walker sought to follow that middle path — though his conservative Christian roots and support for Trump often pushed him further into culture war territory than Coble.

“It’s been my honor to spend the bulk of my adult life in service, first as a pastor in the Triad for 16 years as well as spending six years representing the citizens of central North Carolina in the halls of Congress,” Walker said. “Boldly stated, there is no other candidate that can match my experience and my strong, conservative record.”

Manning intends to run again for her seat.

“These maps were created for one purpose only: to ensure Republicans win more House seats so that they can maintain control of the U.S. House of Representatives,” Manning said in a statement earlier this month. “They are not a reflection of the best interests of North Carolinians but rather an offering to the national Republican Party.”

An image from the campaign of Christian Castelli for Congres showing the candidate in uniform.
On Thursday Christian Castelli, a retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel and Green Beret, announced a bid for the GOP nomination for the 6th Congressional District. (Image: Christian Castelli for Congress Campaign)

Walker will also have to best other Republican hopefuls, including High Point Mayor Jay Wagner.

On Thursday Christian Castelli, a retired Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army and Green Beret, announced his candidacy with a statement that seemed to cast Walker as part of the “D.C. elite.”

“Congressional experience, elected office experience is noble,” Castelli said in a statement “But it is not what is needed right now. We’ve tried it; it’s failed us. We need real-world, real-life experience to put us on a course of security, strength and prosperity.”

“The answer is not to be the candidate of the D.C. Establishment and K Street,” Castelli said, referring to an area of Washington known for lobbyists. “The answer is the support of voters right here at home in the district.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.