Outgoing Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., has become a fixture in the GOP runoff to determine his successor in the 6th District.
Coble, 83, announced in November he would not seek another term in his Greensboro-based district. Nine Republicans vied to succeed him in a May primary , and the race culminates in a GOP runoff between Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr. and Baptist Pastor Mark Walker on July 15.
Initially, the 15-term Republican refused to take sides in the race, but he endorsed Berger after the primary. Since then, he's become a frequent presence in the contest, appearing at Berger’s campaign events and fundraisers, making robocalls to voters on behalf of his campaign and riding in the July Fourth parade alongside the front-runner.
Coble told CQ Roll Call that he decided to endorse a potential successor after getting numerous inquiries from the press and candidates about whom he supported. "I think [Berger] would be the better candidate at this juncture," Coble said in a Tuesday phone interview. "I think he and Mark Walker both are clearly conservative, but I feel that Phil has conducted himself competitively in races earlier, and I think he has the better chance of representing the 6th District."
GOP operatives in the Tar Heel State say Coble's presence could be the deciding factor for voters on July 15. A week from the runoff, Coble will again play a prominent role in voter communication, appearing in a mailer for Berger sent to likely runoff voters.
“Coble means a lot in that district,” said Chuck Fuller, a North Carolina Republican operative. “He means a lot to people, especially ones who have called in and got their Social Security or veterans benefits squared away, simple things that congressional offices take care of on a daily basis. People don’t forget about that.”
Berger has other advantages in the runoff, in addition to Coble's backing. He came in first in the May 6 primary with 34 percent — shy of the 40 percent threshold needed to win the nomination outright. Walker came in a second with 25 percent.
Berger also shares a name with his father, state Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger Sr., one of the most prominent legislators in the Tar Heel State.
And Berger raised more than Walker for the runoff, bringing in $192,000 to Walker's $96,000, according to the most recent fundraising reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Berger has received contributions from a number of Republican members of Congress, including $5,000 from North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx's leadership PAC, $4,000 from House Majority Whip-elect Steve Scalise's leadership PAC and $1,000 from North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson's leadership PAC.
Republicans expect low turnout in next week's runoff, and some predict just 5 percent of registered GOP voters will cast ballots. That means there's a chance for a surprise result.
"When the turnout is going to be that small, a little hitch, a little bump on one of those things could decide the election," said Carter Wrenn, a GOP operative who worked for Bruce VonCannon, one of the seven candidates who did not advance to the runoff in the district. "You wouldn’t want to have to bet on this one way or the other."
“The other side is trying to make people as confused as possible,” McDonald said of the Walker campaign. "I know [we've] had senior citizens call the office saying they heard Coble endorsed that nice preacher man. Nothing against Mark, but [Howard Coble] always liked Phil Berger better."
Whoever wins the GOP nomination will face former University of North Carolina Administrator Laura Fjeld in November. The 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, carried the district with 58 percent in 2012.
North Carolina's 6th District is rated as a Safe Republican contest by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
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