Republicans dodge nasty Senate primary in North Carolina

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Mark Walker

Rep. Mark Walker sought to replace Sen. Thom Tillis, but backed away when President Donald Trump didn’t give him his blessing. | Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

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Rep. Mark Walker decided against challenging Sen. Thom Tillis after President Donald Trump stayed mum on the race.

Rep. Mark Walker has decided not to launch a primary challenge against Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, in a relief to senior Republicans who feared a scorched-earth battle in a key state.

Walker has been seriously considering a run for Senate but was eager to first secure President Donald Trump’s blessing. He met with Trump at the White House last month to discuss the race and was trying to lock down a second meeting this week as he weighed a bid.

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Top Republicans, however, had expressed concern to Trump about the potential consequences a nasty primary race could have on GOP control of the Senate and his own re-election prospects, and a green light from the president was unlikely to be coming.

“After prayerful reflection and consideration, I am confident that my continued service in the House will best help our efforts to reclaim the majority from Nancy Pelosi and advance our shared conservative goals,” Walker told POLITICO in a statement.

“The support from President Trump and conservatives across North Carolina in encouraging me to run for the Senate has been deeply humbling,” he continued. “When I first ran for Congress, I confronted an establishment political machine with considerable resources, power, and connections, but we overcame long odds for an improbable win. While polling in both the primary and general election conveyed we could find similar success in 2020, the most important thing is that we keep North Carolina red for President Trump.”

Walker met with Tillis in his Senate office Wednesday afternoon to deliver the message that he would not challenge him, according to Jack Minor, a Walker spokesman. Minor also said Walker is still requesting a second meeting with Trump this week to speak directly to the president about his decision.

Walker’s potential bid had been a source of anxiety for top Senate Republicans. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have spoken with Trump about North Carolina and argued an expensive, bloody primary would hurt his campaign and their chances to hold the Senate seat, according to two sources familiar with the conversations.

North Carolina is not only a critical swing state in the 2020 presidential election, but McConnell is also defending a tougher map than the previous election cycle as Republicans seek to protect their 53-47 majority.

Walker, a pastor and former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said earlier this week that he was still actively considering a bid after the conservative Club for Growth conducted polling to test his viability and conservatives in the state encouraged him to run.

“Some of the numbers we have seen, the frustration levels from North Carolinians, just to be frank, it is concerning,” Walker said earlier this week, referencing concerns about Tillis’ standing in the state.

But Walker has his own problems in the Tar Heel state. POLITICO reported in April that Walker was connected to a federal corruption probe that led to the indictment of the former North Carolina Republican Party chairman. Walker has emphasized that he was never a target in the investigation and denies any wrongdoing.

Walker also hasn’t laid much groundwork for a potential statewide run. And while the three-term congressman made numerous calls to donors, he didn’t receive a great response, according to one House Republican.

Tillis said in an interview Wednesday that he has discussed the race and North Carolina more broadly with Trump, but that he has not asked the president for an endorsement, saying it was too early for those discussions. But he also emphasized his support for Trump’s agenda and said he will make that clear during his campaign.

“We will work, based on the record, to show that we’ve supported the agenda,” Tillis said. “I think [Rep.] Patrick McHenry is the only member of the delegation that has a higher voting record with the president than I do.”

Tillis faced a conservative backlash earlier this year after announcing in a Washington Post op-ed he would oppose Trump’s national emergency declaration to build his wall. Tillis later reversed course and supported the president’s unilateral action but many on the right haven’t forgotten.

Tillis has spent the last few months working to show little daylight between himself and Trump. He’s moved in lock step with the president on a series of issues, including siding with Trump on his proposed Mexican tariffs despite vocal opposition from other GOP senators.

Tillis already faces one primary challenge from businessman Garland Tucker, who is self-funding his campaign and has been running ads on Fox News criticizing the incumbent. Tillis has consistently downplayed concerns about a primary challenge and did so again Wednesday.

“One thing people learned about me is I’m slow, patient and methodical, and I don’t get caught up in distractions this early in the cycle,” Tillis said.

Some of Tillis’ allies have rallied around his campaign. Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent anti-abortion group, endorsed his re-election this week. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top Trump ally, endorsed Tillis last week.

“He’s got an independent streak that I think North Carolina appreciates,” Graham said in an interview. “He’s highly electable in a general election, he’s been a good conservative. I would certainly encourage the president to help him.”

There is still some concern in GOP circles that Tillis could be a drag on the party in 2020, but Republicans expect Trump will ultimately get involved in the race and provide his support to the incumbent.

“I think he’ll wait awhile, and he’ll succumb to the pressure, because Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell and Ronna McDaniel and all of them are pressuring the president to endorse Tillis,” said one GOP source familiar with the race.

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

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