Senator denies support for NC candidate. It’s the third endorsement he’s lost.

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A U.S. senator’s chief of staff says his boss never endorsed former Rep. Mark Walker in North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District race.

And staff for House Speaker Mike Johnson and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said they, too, are not endorsing Walker, despite Walker’s previous assertions.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Ben Cantrell, chief of staff to Sen. Markwayne Mullin, said Friday morning.

McClatchy called Cantrell after learning that Mullin’s name appeared on an endorsement for Walker, but that Mullin never endorsed him.

“That is correct,” Cantrell said.

The post, dated Dec. 11, included a graphic declaring Mullin’s endorsement and a statement above it that read: “Excited to share the official endorsement from Senator Markwayne Mullin! His commitment to conservative values and fearless advocacy make him a true patriot. Grateful for the support of my friend and longtime colleague from Oklahoma who stands up for what’s right.”

A graphic tweeted out by Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina. Sen. Markwayne Mullin’s chief of staff says Mullin did not endorse Walker, despite Walker’s announcement.
A graphic tweeted out by Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina. Sen. Markwayne Mullin’s chief of staff says Mullin did not endorse Walker, despite Walker’s announcement.

“I have not had a conversation with Mark about it,” Cantrell said. “I had meant to put in a phone call when it was sent out, but I obviously spoke to Markwayne and that was not the case.”

Cantrell added that Mullin is focused on Oklahoma, which he represents, and would not be weighing in on the race in North Carolina.

Walker said he and Mullin had a verbal conversation about the endorsement and that he was trying to get Mullin’s staff on the phone throughout Friday afternoon in his own attempt to figure out what was going on.

Walker confirmed that endorsements from Pompeo and Johnson had been rescinded. He said he has not sent out any information about their endorsements since then.

Walker is a former Baptist music minister from Greensboro who served three terms in Congress and led the conservative Republican Study Committee, which Johnson later led on his way to becoming speaker.

Un-endorsed

All of this actually began Thursday, with a different candidate: Christian Castelli, a retired Army colonel and Green Beret. A political action committee based in Greensboro said that Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson endorsed Castelli in the 6th district, using a video Robinson made for Castelli’s 2022 election.

Robinson quickly put out a statement saying he had not endorsed Castelli this election cycle and would send a cease-and-desist demand to the PAC and consider legal action. Castelli’s campaign quickly confirmed Robinson’s remarks and denied any connection to the PAC.

From there dominoes began to fall as a series of people came forward, this time targeting Walker, and said their bosses fell victim to false endorsement claims in the 6th district.

The first of those came late Thursday, when freelance journalist Bryan Anderson reported that Johnson walked back his endorsement of Walker. Greg Steele, Johnson’s communication director, confirmed to McClatchy Friday morning that, as speaker, Johnson was staying neutral in the race.

Ironically, the Greensboro PAC jumped at the opportunity to call Walker out on this.

A few hours later, McClatchy received confirmation about Mullin’s lack of an endorsement — then just minutes later, received an email thread between another campaign’s staff and Zach Lowry, a special assistant to the PAC behind Pompeo.

Walker had said in campaign material that Pompeo supported him.

But Lowry wrote, around noon Friday: “The Secretary does not intend to endorse at this time.”

Walker showed McClatchy a text message between Walker and Pompeo from Nov. 2 that appears to confirm Walker’s recollection that Pompeo said he would “of course” endorse Walker and told him to reach out to someone on his staff to make it happen.

Pompeo makes a habit of including all of his endorsements on his website, but had not included one for any candidate in North Carolina’s 6th district. Castelli received Pompeo’s endorsement in 2022.

This Sept. 18, 2019, file photo shows then-Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., speaking during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.
This Sept. 18, 2019, file photo shows then-Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., speaking during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

What Walker says happened

Walker first announced, in October, Johnson’s endorsement on social media. It was in the same post he announced he was switching from a gubernatorial race to running in the 6th district. He wrote that he was “elated to announce ... the support of the new Speaker of the House and my dear friend, Mike Johnson.”

On Friday, Walker said he got notice that the endorsement was rescinded in November after Johnson became speaker.

“I think the world of Speaker Johnson, and I hope he feels the same way about me,” Walker told McClatchy Friday. “I remember receiving a nice call from him, thanking me for my work with him since he came there the term after I did, but this was days before all the chaos there with the speaker’s race.”

In early October, eight Republicans worked with Democrats to oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, from his leadership position in the chamber. For three weeks, North Carolina’s Rep. Patrick McHenry took over as interim speaker and helped the House find a replacement.

That replacement ended up being Johnson.

“This was at the same time we were getting encouragement to reengage in the U.S. House race because we knew the lines were being redrawn,” Walker said.

As they always are, North Carolina’s congressional districts had been tied up in the courts, after they had been deemed politically gerrymandered to favor Republicans in the 2022 election. A temporary map was created to get voters through that election cycle, but lawmakers were given another chance to draw the maps for 2024.

The new maps gave Republicans a 10 to 3 advantage with one potential swing district that could favor either party.

Among the new Republican-favoring districts is the 6th, currently represented by Greensboro’s Kathy Manning. Walker served the 6th Congressional District the last time it had leaned Republican, but left when it was clear that his district would favor a Democrat, and later chose to run in the 2022 race for U.S. Senate.

He lost, then briefly ran in the 2024 race for governor before switching to the 6th district.

“Speaker Johnson is one of the top people that we respect and I reached out to him and said, “Look, this is what we’re doing. Can I count on you for support with these other members and a handful of Senators that are supporting us as well?” Walker said. “And his exact words were, ‘Happy to. We need you back.’ And that’s kind of what became part of our theme: The We Need You Back tour.”

Walker showed McClatchy a text that seemingly confirms that exchange.

Walker said they continued to exchange text messages offering prayers for one another.

“I’m proud of the work that he’s doing,” Walker said. “But I also understand that after the dust settled they felt like where they were at this point that they needed to keep their powder dry and stay neutral in the process. We respected that and we understood that.”

Walker and Castelli will face off against Trump-endorsed former lobbyist Addison McDowell, former N.C. State football player Bo Hines, former High Point Mayor Jay Wagner and plastic surgeon Mary Ann Contogiannis.

NC Reality Check is an N&O series holding those in power accountable and shining a light on public issues that affect the Triangle or North Carolina. Have a suggestion for a future story? Email realitycheck@newsobserver.com

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