Phil Berger Jr., Rockingham County’s chief prosecutor and the son of the leader of the state Senate, lost to Mark Walker, a former Baptist minister, in a primary runoff for the Republican candidate in the 6th Congressional District on Tuesday.
Walker scored a decisive victory, winning 60 percent of the vote – a margin of more than 6,000 votes in the low-turnout second primary. The unofficial tally was 18,871 votes for Walker and 12,550 for Berger.
Walker will face Democrat Laura Fjeld, a former general counsel for the UNC system. Republican U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, who has held the seat since 1985, is retiring.
Berger conceded the election and congratulated his opponent, calling for unity in an emotional speech, the Greensboro News & Record reported.
But even as Berger took immediate steps to unify the Republican party in what was a bitter campaign between the two men, Fjeld issued a statement calling on Berger’s supporters to unite behind her in the November election to defeat Walker, “a radical extremist who doesn’t share the values of North Carolinians.”
The Democratic Congressional Committee also issued a statement saying, “Tonight, the fringe of the Republican Party dealt another defeat to the establishment by nominating Mark Walker.”
But Fjeld has her work cut out for her in the Republican stronghold that comprises the 6th Congressional District, facing an opponent who has marshaled tea party support behind him.
Berger, who had raised more money than Walker and who was endorsed by Coble, had been considered a favorite when he announced his candidacy. But a crowded field of nine candidates for the May primary prevented anyone from receiving the needed 40 percent of the vote.
The runoff campaign was marked by escalating acrimony.
Walker came under attack after making conflicting statements about where he stood on immigration, and for a string of attacks against his opponent, including a wildly inaccurate one last week on television. In the TV debate hosted by Time Warner Cable News, Walker claimed Berger had been cited for an ethics violation by the U.S. Supreme Court.
That turned out to be a reference to a ruling in a landmark case, Berger v. United States, that was decided in 1935 – long before candidate Berger was born. Walker later said he had been given the wrong information.
In the same debate, Walker angered the state’s main gun-rights organization, Grass Roots North Carolina, for his dismissive remarks about the group’s recommendation of support for Berger – saying it “came out of Raleigh, and we all know the works in Raleigh.”
The organization distributed a news release over the weekend calling on Walker to apologize. Grass Roots said its volunteers went through returned surveys that had gone out to 500 candidates; Walker failed to return the candidate survey by the deadline, the group said.
Walker, during the debate, also erroneously referred to a proposal for a federal background check for gun ownership as the E-Verify system, which is actually about immigration.
Last week the super PAC Keep Conservatives United called Walker’s claim that Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger was using it to funnel money into his son’s campaign “bogus.”
Berger raised significantly more money than Walker, supported by some of the state’s leading political action committees representing hospital, insurance, banking and power company interests. Yet nearly three-fourths of his contributions came from individual donors. The super PAC spent more than $200,000 in the election.
Berger raised more than $450,000 as of June 25, while Walker raised more than $300,000. Almost all of Walker’s contributions were from individuals.
The district runs along the North Carolina-Virginia border from around Mt. Airy almost to Henderson, dropping down into Greensboro and snipping off parts of Orange and Durham counties. It is comprised of parts of Guilford, Alamance, Durham, Granville and Orange counties, and all of Caswell, Person, Rockingham, Surry and Stokes counties.
Berger and Walker both reached out to the conservative hardliners in the district. Berger won the backing of the Tea Party Express, the nation’s largest tea party PAC. Walker received endorsements from losing U.S. Senate candidates Mark Harris and Heather Grant. The two men split endorsements from local government officials, including sheriffs.