This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

Looking to distinguish himself in a tough GOP Senate primary field, former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker is criticizing former Gov. Pat McCrory and U.S. Rep. Ted Budd for not defending Lt. Gov Mark Robinson’s recent characterization of LGBTQ people as “filth.”

In an interview last week with conservative Christian talk show host Steve Noble, Walker said his Republican opponents failed to show that they are willing to do what it takes to win “cultural battles.”

“We came out swinging for him,” Walker said of his own campaign’s reaction to the controversy over Robinson’s comments. “I was a little disappointed. I won’t name names, but I did mention as far as the other two opponents that we have, that they kind of left Mark hanging.”

Policy Watch reached out to Walker, Budd and McCrory—all of whom are vying in the March 2022 GOP primary to succeed the retiring incumbent, Richard Burr—this week for comment on the interview but received no responses.

In the interview with Noble, Walker said it was “a muscle instinct reflex for us to get out there and immediately talk about this.”

In fact, Walker “came out swinging” with his first public statement on Robinson’s controversial comments four days after state Senator and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Jackson called for the lieutenant governor to resign over the statements. By then Robinson was attempting to reframe his comments as narrowly pertaining to what he said were sexually explicit books in public school libraries about LGBTQ people or issues. There is no evidence these books are used in school curricula.

In his original comments Robinson, who said this week he is “95 percent sure” he will run for governor, made no mention of those books or public schools.

“There’s no reason anybody, anywhere in America should be telling children about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth,” Robinson said in footage of a church speech published by the group Right Wing Watch.

As Robinson explained that by “anybody, anywhere in America” he actually meant public school libraries and that “transgendersism, homosexuality, any of that filth” actually meant specific sexually explicit materials, reaction was split—even among members of his own party.

The North Carolina Republican Party released a statement supporting Robinson in his pivot to talking about sexually explicit books in school libraries. But the statement made no mention of LGBTQ people or Robinson’s characterization of them as “filth.”

Likewise, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) released a statement supporting Robinson’s new criticism of explicit material in public schools but not addressing his characterization of LGBTQ people as “filth.”

Instead, Moore’s statement contained a call to “work together with greater respect for our neighbors even in the most passionate political debates.”

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) made no comparable statement and didn’t return calls and emails from reporters seeking comment on the controversy.

Brent Woodcox, Berger’s senior policy counsel, however, took to Twitter to address Robinson’s comments. “There is no future for a political party that is anti-gay,” Woodcox wrote. “There just isn’t a large enough constituency in this country for the attitude. The world changed. Some politicians are catching up.”

State Rep Marcia Morey (D-Durham) called Robinson’s pivot from characterizing LGBTQ people as “filth” to talking about books in schools “a bait and switch.”

“I think this started out by a video that was in a church, and it was disgusting,” Morey said at a news conference earlier this month “Now, it has pivoted to what kids are reading in schools. These are really two different issues. I think we all want good solid literature for kids to read, but don’t conflate this with the words of hate and filth that sparked this entire debate.”

Walker’s first statement on the controversy also accepted Robinson’s reframing of the issue and dealt exclusively with the content of books to which Robinson took exception.

But Budd and McCrory did not address the controversy at all. Walker took them to task for that in his talk show appearance last week.

“If we’re going to win some of the cultural battles and you are saying, ‘Hey, I’m a conservative, evangelical Republican’ — get in the fight,” Walker said.

“A street brawl”

Walker has left little doubt that he is “in the fight.”

As Policy Watch recently reported, Walker joined fellow Republicans Robinson and U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn as special guest speakers at a private event for the American Renewal Project earlier this month. The group, which has a history of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, rejects the separation of church and state and says its conservative fundamentalist version of Christianity should be taught in public schools.

In his interview with Noble, who describes himself as an “ultra-conservative, Bible-thumping, Southern Baptist talk radio show host,” Walker highlighted his strong Christian faith as a point of difference with many in his own party.

“There’s a lot of nominal Christianity in the Republican party,” Walker told Noble in the interview. “The swamp is as deep in the Republican party as it is the Democrat.”

Walker touted his time as co-chair of the Prayer Caucus, which he described as “15 to 20 men and women who walk with the Lord and are looking for God’s direction each and every week.”

Noble said everyone should be praying for those people and “introduce in your own heart and your own mind the reality of spiritual warfare.”

Walker said his Christian faith will be central to his strategy in the GOP primary, which he said is “a street brawl.”

Both Walker and Robinson are used to being underdogs in political street fights. In his first run for congress Walker, a political newcomer, emerged from a GOP primary crowded with bigger names and better financed campaigns, soundly defeating Phil Berger Jr. in the eventual run-off.

In the coming Senate GOP primary Walker again faces opponents with more money, name recognition and high profile endorsements.

Budd won the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, despite Walker’s argument that he was more loyal to Trump and his agenda during his presidency. Major conservative PACs like the Club for Growth have also thrown their support behind Budd.

This week McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor and one-term governor, released internal polling showing he is currently he overwhelming favorite in the GOP primary race. The polling, done by GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies for the McCrory campaign, shows the former governor winning support from 40 percent of the poll’s 500 likely primary voters. That puts him 15 points ahead of Budd. Walker took just 8 percent in the poll.

Robinson, for his part, was a political unknown before Walker helped him go viral on the internet by sharing a video of a pro gun-rights speech before the Greensboro City Council in 2018. He swiftly went from never having held elected office to being the highest elected Republican in the state with an eye on running for governor in 2024.

With the race that far out no other Republicans or Democrats have yet formally announced their intention to run. Gov. Roy Cooper is prevented by term limits from running for third consecutive term.

Both Walker and Robinson have relied on support and organization from conservative Christians, making appearances at churches and Christian festivals central to their campaigns and political identities.

Robinson has forged an even stronger bond with the American Renewal Project than his predecessor, Dan Forest, who headlined a Charlotte event for the group in 2019.

As Lt. Governor, Robinson has been the special guest and keynote speaker at private pastor events for the group across the state throughout 2021.

At the North Carolina Faith & Freedom Coalition’s recent “Salt & Light Conference,” Robinson stated that the United States is and has always been a “Christian nation” and invited those who disagree with that premise to leave the country.

“If you don’t like it, I’ll buy your plane, train, or automobile ticket right outta’ here,” Robinson said.

That kind of rhetoric is common to crusades like The American Renewal Project.

The group often invokes violent, militaristic imagery to describe what its founder, David Lane, calls the fight for survival of Christian culture in America, and government institutions—from the national level to local public education systems – is often its target.

“Can you picture what America would look like following a decade-long war—a knock-down drag-out—to return God, prayer and the Bible to the public schools?” Lane asked in the 2012 essay in which he announced his American Renewal Project. “To regain our Christian heritage and re-establish a Christian culture?”

But that rhetoric—embraced by Robinson and Walker—is divisive in mainstream politics, even among other Republicans.

Madison Downing, former political consultant to Tim Moore, addressed the potential political impact that tirades like Robinson’s have on the Republican party itself.

“If people don’t call him out, then we are enabling him,” Downing said. “We are a big tent party, or this party is not mine anymore. We should embrace every person, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

Familiar attacks from on high

For Kendra Johnson, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC, the “bigoted rhetoric” is nothing new.

“Finding these wedge issues is something we’ve seen consistently in electoral cycles,” Johnson said. “People need to stop fundraising off of hate and take care of the people who are most marginalized. Statements like Mark Robinson’s are ones that contribute to feelings that certain folks are disposable and shouldn’t have rights.”

From marriage equality and the fight over HB2 to continued opposition to non-discrimination protections, Johnson said Republicans have consistently made it clear they’re willing to use LGBTQ people and their rights against Democrats and, when necessary, against each other.

“They’re jockeying to represent ‘family values’ and play to their base at the expense of marginalized communities,” Johnson said.

But rhetoric like Robinson’s and Walker’s leaves an important question unaddressed, Johnson said: What about the values, rights and lives of LGBTQ people and their families in North Carolina? Will those vying to represent North Carolina represent them as well?

“This is the year we’ve had the highest number anti-trans bills filed across the country,” Johnson said. “We’ve had more than 250 filed nationwide. This is not happening in a vacuum. It’s people consumed with using a political agenda on the backs of marginalized people to score points, get their names in the headlines and further their political careers.”

These attacks from on high – from the office of the lieutenant governor and the campaigns of those vying for a U.S. Senate seat—underscore the need for comprehensive legal protections for LGBTQ people across the state and the nation, Johnson said.

“We need to concentrate on building political power so that everyone has access to what we call the American dream,” Johnson said. “And there’s no place in our democracy for these people to attack their own constituents.”

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