Republican N.C. House candidate Russell Walker thinks God is racist and that Jewish people "descend from Satan," but did the 824 GOP voters who supported him know that?
Republican leaders in Hoke and Scotland counties — and even his primary opponent — don't think so. They say GOP voters in their community don't share Walker's racist views, which have prompted state and local party leaders to disavow his candidacy. Instead, they think his victory in May was the result of limited information and a low-key campaign by his opponent.
Walker's primary opponent, John Imbaratto of Laurinburg, said he ran for the seat held by Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, with the encouragement of fellow Scotland County Republican Party members. Imbaratto said he wanted to give voters an alternative to Pierce, but his busy travel schedule as a consultant kept him out of the state for much of the campaign season.
"I didn't have time to get out there and talk to people," he said.
Walker, however, is retired and spent time at Walmart and other busy locations in the district handing out promotional cards. Those materials promised voters a change after Pierce's seven terms in office, but there was no mention of Walker's more controversial views, said Ron Hartman, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Hoke County Republican Party.
"His personal views had absolutely nothing to do with why he won," Hartman said, adding that GOP turnout was low because there were few other contested primaries in the heavily Democratic county. "The Republicans just sort of didn't go."
Walker had the benefit of an endorsement from the gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina, which backed him over Imbaratto because of how he answered survey questions about Second Amendment issues. The group did not respond to an email inquiry asking if it is still backing Walker's campaign.
Still, the unorthodox nature of his candidacy would have been apparent to voters who paid attention to local news or researched the candidates. His campaign website displays a photo of him posing next to a donkey with the caption "my little white ass and me." In January, Walker was pictured on the front page of the Hoke County newspaper holding a sign that said, "what is wrong with being racist?" Despite the extra attention in Hoke County, Walker won by a wider margin there than he did in Scotland County.
Mark Schenck, chairman of the Scotland County Republican Party, said he thinks voters might have struggled to remember the spelling of Imbaratto's "Italian" name. "He's very intelligent, but his name was hard to spell," Schenck said.
State GOP officials disavowed Walker last week after he was ejected from a Scotland GOP meeting after a confrontation in which he called Schenck a "liar."
"He's definitely got a mental problem, and that needs to be taken into consideration," Schenck said. He criticized party rules that prevent county party leaders from taking sides in contested primaries. "I had two Republicans running for that office, and we are not allowed to vet the candidates," he said.
Schenck said he's looking into having someone mount a write-in campaign for the House seat. In Hoke County, though, Hartman said Republicans are instead focusing their energy on winning seats on the county board of commissioners this year.