RALEIGH — A former Baptist minister who knocked off the son of one of North Carolina’s most powerful politicians in a Republican primary for Congress did so in part by cultivating an outsider’s image.
Mark Walker shared common views on abortion, gun control and education with GOP rival Phil Berger Jr., but Walker refused to sign a no-tax pledge sought by conservative activist Grover Norquist. The pledge is something Republican congressional candidates, including Berger, have agreed to for a generation. Walker said he rejected any commitment to “a guy in Washington.”
Walker’s door-to-door effort was critical in an election in which just 10 percent of eligible voters turned out, according to State Board of Elections figures. People who voted in the Democratic primary could not vote in the GOP runoff.
Runoff primaries held Tuesday in 37 of the state’s 100 counties attracted 6 percent of eligible voters overall, the elections board said.
Walker’s network in his home Guilford County was crucial in winning in the 10-county, 6th Congressional District, said J. Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. Greensboro and the communities surrounding it in the county represent about 40 percent of the district’s voters, and Walker built nearly a two-to-one margin there.
Berger was backed by nearly all of North Carolina’s Republican congressional incumbents and supporters of his father, state Senate leader Phil Berger. The younger Berger, Rockingham County’s top prosecutor, derided Walker as “not fit to hold office at any level.” A super PAC spent $113,000 since May’s primary to back Berger and blast Walker.
Still, Walker “seemed to come across a little more genuine, even if he wasn’t as completely polished,” Bitzer said Wednesday. “I think Berger comes across as a polished politician, but that can rub the wrong way, especially when voter mood is so against incumbents.”
Walker said in an interview last week that congressional gridlock isn’t helping the country and fellow conservatives deserved some of the blame.
“Sometimes our approach is filled with too much vitriol and filled with too much anger to go back and build that relationship” with political opponents, Walker said.
Walker’s campaign relied on smaller contributions from individuals and rejected the influence of outsiders like Norquist, even though he generally agreed that lowering taxes was good for the economy.
“It’s been part of our policy not to sign deals or pledges with any of these Washington-insider groups,” Walker said. “Why do I need to sign a tax pledge with a guy in Washington, D.C., when I can make my pledge and promise to the people of North Carolina’s 6th District?”
Walker faces Democrat Laura Fjeld, a retired University of North Carolina system administrator, in November. The congressional seat opened when GOP Rep. Howard Coble decided to retire after 30 years. The district heavily favors Republicans.
Sen. Berger had no explanation Wednesday for his son’s loss.
“I do know that sometimes it’s just not your day, and I don’t know that I’m in a position to provide any more depth to it than that,” Berger said.