GREENSBORO, N.C. — Mark Walker has been here before.
Stuck in political no man’s land, facing an upcoming filing deadline, with his hopes of becoming a senator all but dashed and the boundaries of his familiar former House district in question.
The former congressman’s Senate bid remains in limbo after former President Donald Trump earlier this month privately offered to endorse Walker to run for a newly drawn House seat instead. Also looming is a legal challenge to North Carolina’s map, which could result in the new district being abruptly redrawn to become heavily Democratic.
Now Walker, who served three terms in the House and is a distant third in a three-way GOP primary, is once again a candidate in search of a race he can win. Walker is trailing Trump-endorsed Rep. Ted Budd and former Gov. Pat McCrory in both support and fundraising for the Senate seat.
A politician whose career plans have repeatedly been eviscerated since 2019, Walker’s situation is complicated by the fact that he just isn’t interested in following the conventional rulebook for the game of politics, instead willing to alienate key players and kingmakers as he goes his own way.
When it works, the results for Walker have been spectacular. When it doesn’t work, so have the consequences.
“I’ll put my pride on the table, but I won’t put my principles,” Walker said in an interview earlier this month, days after Trump made the offer.
“On paper,” Walker said, running for the House again “makes a lot of sense.”
But Walker isn’t someone whose political decisions come down to logic and the input of consultants. The former Baptist pastor must feel it in his heart — just like when he walked down from the nosebleed section at the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa, onto the floor of the arena, and sensed God tell him he had to run for Congress.
Then he won, against the odds.
“So I’m going to do what I believe is the best thing to do,” Walker said of his current conundrum. “Does it cost me millions of dollars in super PAC money? Probably so. But I know if I can beat the system, it allows me to get up there like we did last time and go and serve uninhibited.”
Trump allies had floated the House endorsement proposal to Walker for a couple weeks before their Dec. 4 meeting at Trump’s private Florida club, though Walker — with no realistic path to victory in the Senate race — initially declined because the deal involved endorsing Budd, he told donors. The stipulation was later removed.
Two years ago, he drew the short straw in a court-ordered map redraw that made Walker’s congressional district heavily Democratic to reverse Republicans’ gerrymandering, leaving him with no good options for 2020. Walker could have primaried Budd for a neighboring House seat, though the Club for Growth pledged to back Budd financially — as they’re doing with at least $10 million in the current Senate race.
He could have primaried Sen. Thom Tillis — a proposal Walker publicly floated twice in 2019, before announcing he wouldn’t seek office at all the following year, instead looking to an open Senate seat in 2022.
Despite Walker suggesting at the time that he would have Trump’s endorsement in 2022 and entering the Senate race before his rivals, Walker was caught off guard when Trump announced at a June rally he was backing Budd.
Staying in the race, Walker admits, requires him to successfully forge his own path. It’s an approach that got him to Congress, but one that would be nearly impossible to replicate on a statewide level without significant funding.
“You’ve got the Trump lane in one aspect, and you’ve got the former governor, who I believe has the Karl Rove camp in his lane,” Walker said, referring to McCrory. “And we’re having to build our own path to be able to build the fundraising, to be able to build the name ID.”
While McCrory’s staff maintains that Walker exiting the race would have little impact on the outcome, a Club for Growth poll released last week showed Budd with a narrow lead — a statistical tie at 47 percent to McCrory’s 43 percent — in a two-way matchup. Polling commission by the Club this fall showed Budd still had not commanded a lead in the three-way primary, earning 33 percent support to McCrory’s 36 percent, while Walker had 13 percent of the vote.
“I don’t think they’re concerned for my political future,” Walker said of parties encouraging him to run for the House. “I think they’re concerned that Ted’s numbers aren’t where they need to be. He’s got everything in the world, and he’s still at 30 percent.”
Budd’s campaign declined to comment on the record for this story.
It’s no secret in North Carolina political circles that the relationship between Walker and Budd is strained. Already at odds after Walker floated running against Budd for the House last cycle, Walker resents that his former House colleague butted into the 2022 Senate race and occupied the Trump lane Walker had tried to claim for himself, according to several people familiar with the situation.
That’s part of a pattern of skirmishes between Walker and the GOP establishment. He launched his political career in 2013 as a church pastor with a plan to primary popular GOP Rep. Howard Coble, then a 30-year incumbent, and later teasing a challenge to Tillis.
And while he has courted Trump’s support, Walker’s brand of Christian conservatism has eschewed full-blown Trumpism. In 2016, Walker condemned Trump’s remarks about sexual assault captured on tape by Access Hollywood, calling them “vile” and adding that “America deserves better.”
In August 2020 and on his way out of Congress, Walker made headlines by becoming the first high-profile Republican to call on Jerry Falwell Jr. to resign as president of Liberty University — where Walker served on a music faculty advisory board — after a photo surfaced of Falwell, a close Trump ally, with his pants unzipped and his arm around his wife’s assistant.
“I’m an everyday guy. My world is made up of simple people I love and care about,” Walker said, his voice breaking from emotion. “I’m just a grassroots guy who’s had extraordinary opportunity, but I’ve not done it the way I’m supposed to do it inside the system — and sometimes that bites you.
“I’ll walk away before I have to do that.”
Walking away would mean the middle-class 52-year-old rebuilding a career and finding a new job. And believing that his God-ordained vocation is to influence policy in Washington, Walker has no plans to soon return to full-time ministry.
Walker has successfully defied the establishment before. In a 2014 primary runoff, he beat out Coble’s endorsed successor, Phil Berger Jr.— the son of the state Senate president pro tem and now a state Supreme Court justice.
In January before the May primary that year, Walker’s congressional campaign had just $9,000 cash on hand, far less than Berger’s.
Throughout his political career, from the time he signaled he was willing to challenge Coble, Walker has demonstrated a mentality that “the rules don’t apply to him, and no one’s going to take it personal,” said one North Carolina Republican who is familiar with the former congressman’s career.
“That’s become problematic for him, specifically over the last two to three years.”
Walker quickly emerged as a leader in Congress, becoming chair of the Republican Study Committee after his first term, and then vice chair of the House Republican Conference in 2019.
But months after his threat to primary Tillis, the state’s GOP establishment came for him, offering up Walker’s House seat to mollify the state Supreme Court, which ordered legislators to draw a fairer congressional map. Tillis is a former speaker of the state House — and, among the state’s congressional delegation, Walker had fewer friends in Raleigh even before he mused publicly about taking on their former leader.
“Generally, the legislature tends to look out for members of its own party when they redraw, particularly congressional maps,” said Michael Bitzer, a North Carolina political commentator and professor of politics and history at Catawba University. “Usually, those folks have some deep connections with members of the General Assembly. Maybe Walker just didn’t have that attachment to legislators when he was sacrificed in 2019.”
While Walker takes the holidays to come up with a decision about his campaign plans, he is still waiting for Trump’s public endorsement for the House seat.
“If he stays in, he hurts Budd, no question about it,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and North Carolina native who is a past communications director for the Republican National Committee. “He’s not taking votes from McCrory. He’s only taking them from Budd.”
As part of the arrangement reached at the Mar-a-Lago meeting, which was attended by Club for Growth President David McIntosh, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) and congressional candidate Bo Hines, Hines would move his campaign from the 7th District to the 4th with Trump’s endorsement, while Trump would back Walker to run in the 7th, much of which he previously represented. Hines has also not yet announced his plans.
“I think for most realists, it’s a matter of when, not if, he decides to drop out of the Senate race,” Bitzer said of Walker. “It would be a minor miracle to pull off an upset of that magnitude.”