- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 1, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Outgoing North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker on Tuesday announced his bid to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr in 2022, a path the Republican indicated a year ago he’d pursue after his House district shifted to the left during an unscheduled redistricting.

The quick entry of Walker, mere days after almost all North Carolina 2020 election results were finalized, may signal an attempt to make other big-name conservatives think hard before entering the race. Those include Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and a North Carolina native.

Burr announced years ago that his third six-year term would be his last.

“I’m running for the United States Senate because serving others is my life, and I have the experience to fight and to win in Washington,” Walker, 51, said in a campaign kickoff video on his web site.

A favorite of the Republican base, Walker is a Baptist minister who was first elected to Congress in 2014. He rose through the ranks and chaired the conservative Republican Study Committee. He made inroads working with African American lawmakers by working on efforts to promote historically Black colleges and universities. Black residents are featured prominently in his fast-paced four-minute video, recorded in downtown Greensboro.

Walker had considered challenging Sen. Thom Tillis in the 2020 Republican primary, particularly after GOP activists aligned with Donald Trump questioned Tillis’ allegiance to the president. But Walker declined, and two weeks later Trump endorsed Tillis for reelection.

Walker said he had spoken to Trump about challenging Tillis, and that he would focus on winning another term in central North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District.

That calculus changed in late 2019 when the state legislature redrew all 13 U.S. House districts after judges ruled it was likely the previous map was tainted with extreme partisan bias favoring the GOP.

The reworked 6th District made it likely that a Democrat would win the seat and Walker announced last December he wouldn’t run for anything in 2020. Walker said in a phone interview Tuesday that Trump had told him previously he would back him in a 2022 Senate run, affirming what a Walker spokesperson said last year.

Such an endorsement, if Trump gives it, could winnow the Republican field in North Carolina, where Trump twice earned the state’s electoral votes. His 2020 victory over Joe Biden by 1.3 percentage points, however, was less than half of his victory margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But any such commitment to Walker could be threatened if a family member of the president enters the race.

A person close to Lara Trump, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss her thinking publicly, told The Associated Press that the president’s daughter-in-law has expressed interest in Burr’s seat in 2022 and is exploring a run.

Lara Trump, 38, grew up in Wilmington and went to N.C. State University. She currently lives in New York with husband Eric Trump and their two children. She made frequent North Carolina campaign appearances for her father-in-law in both 2016 and 2020, connecting her to the state’s GOP culture.

Asked about the possibility of Lara Trump’s candidacy, Walker told the AP “it’s not illegal for somebody to move to a state and establish a residence and run.” As for the president’s endorsement, Walker said, “ultimately, that’s his call. But we would certainly appreciate the fact that if he was able to stay with that support, it certainly would mean a lot to us.”

His campaign website shows a photo of Walker with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the Oval Office. Walker’s video didn’t mention Donald Trump by name but mentioned that his time in Congress included “taking on the swamp.” Walker’s goal, he said, was “to be a conservative warrior and a bridge builder for all of our communities. And that’s exactly what we did.”

Other Republicans who’ve said they’d consider Senate bids include former Gov. Pat McCrory and U.S. Rep. George Holding of Raleigh, who also didn’t seek reelection this year due to redistricting.

On the Democratic side, state Sen. Erica Smith, who lost to Cal Cunningham in the 2020 primary for the seat held by Tillis, is already running in 2022. Other names in the mix include state Attorney General Josh Stein and Anthony Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor and U.S. transportation secretary.

Official candidate filing for the March 2022 primaries begins in December 2021, but clearly candidates will have to gas up their campaign fundraising machines well before.

Burr’s retirement will make the first open Senate seat in North Carolina since Democrat John Edwards didn’t run for reelection in 2004, when he instead was the vice presidential nominee.

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