Just four months ago, the likely outcome of the race to succeed retiring Rep. Howard Coble seemed clear to most political observers.
Phil Berger Jr., the front-runner in the crowded May primary, had name recognition as the Rockingham County district attorney and son of N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger.
But Berger was knocked off in the July runoff by Mark Walker, a former Baptist minister who won with 60 percent of the vote.
Walker’s surprise victory has added fuel to the campaign of Democratic candidate Laura Fjeld, a former general counsel for the University of North Carolina system. She’s raised about $100,000 more than Walker, who she says is too conservative for the district. Fjeld, 60, notes that she’s received endorsements from several groups that backed Coble in the past.
Coble, 83, announced in November 2013 that he would retire at the end of his current term.
“When I launched this campaign last August, I was running against Howard Coble,” she said. “Now I’m running against Mark Walker, who holds the most extreme viewpoints.”
Walker, however, argues that his campaign has broad appeal, pointing to an endorsement from well-known Greensboro pastor and registered Democrat Odell Cleveland.
“Even at the community level, we’re already showing some bipartisan support,” Walker said. “If you can’t do that on the community level, you can’t do that in Washington.”
The 6th Congressional District added more Democrats in the latest round of redistricting, and the party now makes up 38.7 percent of registered voters. Registered Republicans make up 35.1 percent of voters.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
David Wasserman, who analyzes U.S. House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, notes that President Barack Obama polled at just 41 percent in the district two years ago.
“Our sense is that Fjeld may perform a little better than Obama did,” he said, adding that Walker is still the likely winner. “Both parties look at this race as a foregone conclusion.”
That doesn’t mean the Republican establishment is thrilled about Walker, Wasserman said. “Republicans are quite nervous that Walker could make statements that hurt the party’s image when he gets to Congress,” he said.
Fjeld has had a stronger campaign than recent Democratic efforts to unseat Coble. “I think the Democrats have nominated a really strong candidate, probably the strongest candidate they’ve had for the seat since Robin Britt in the 1980s,” said Charles Prysby, a political science professor at UNC Greensboro.
Walker made headlines outside the district in September, after Fjeld’s campaign circulated a video of Walker taken at a tea party event in July. In it he suggested he’d support war with Mexico to secure the border.
“If we’ve got to go laser or blitz somebody with a couple of fighter jets for a little while to make our point, I don’t have a problem with that either,” he tells the forum audience.
Asked by the moderator about “starting a little war with Mexico,” Walker responds that “we did it before, if we need to do it again, I don’t have a qualm about it.”
Walker says that the remarks were made in jest and that he was referring to military action against drug cartels. “The words ‘war’ or ‘bomb’ did not come out of my mouth,” he said. “I’m not looking to go across the border to Mexico.”
Fjeld has seized on the comments. “That’s a very extreme position,” she said. “That’s something that reflects very poorly on his ability to seriously assess foreign affairs issues.”
Fjeld has also been critical of Walker’s stance on abortion. “Mark Walker believes that a woman should never be able to make her own health care choices,” she said, pointing to his anti-abortion statements. “He has no exceptions – rape, incest, if her own life is in danger – he would have the government intervene.”
Walker, however, said he thinks “it’s common sense that you protect the health of the mother,” although he wouldn’t say where he stands on abortion in cases of rape and incest. A “blanket one-way-or-another,” he argues, “cheapens the process. ... Overall, we just want to make sure the unborn child has a voice as well.”
Health care law
The two candidates do share common ground. Both are voicing criticism of the Affordable Care Act.
“The rollout, I think everybody can agree, was a disaster,” Fjeld said. “I hold the president and his team accountable for that. ... I think we could relieve the small businesses from some of the onerous regulations (in the law). And if people want to keep their plans, they should be able to.”
Walker has stopped short of calling for the entire health care law to be repealed. Walker said he wants to repeal the law’s “job-killing regulations and taxes.”
“My approach is to try to work with people who are trying to break it down piece by piece,” he said.
Both candidates are making jobs a key issue. “This district has been hit by the double whammy of the loss of textiles, manufacturing and furniture and the recession,” Fjeld said. “We want to close the loopholes in the tax code that give incentives for businesses to offshore jobs.”
Fjeld supports raising the minimum wage, while Walker doesn’t. “I would be for leaving it where it is right now,” he said.
As Nov. 4 draws closer, attacks have been flying from both sides, with the majority coming from Fjeld’s campaign. Walker issued a news release calling his opponent “incessantly negative,” and he argues his views aren’t extreme.
“Our campaign is not the one that’s being funded by radical organizations” like Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List, he said. “It’s far outside the mainstream right or left.”
Fjeld leads in fundraising with $743,668, including $34,850 from PACs and other interest groups. Walker has raised $625,140, including $109,370 from PACs and interest groups including Duke Energy, AT&T and General Electric.
Fjeld disagrees with Walker’s characterization of the race. “I don’t think we’ve been running a negative campaign at all,” she said. “I think it’s fair for the voters to know the truth here. A vote for Mark Walker is a vote to continue the dysfunction. He’s painted himself into a tea party corner.”