The battle royale among nine Republican candidates to fill the 6th Congressional District seat being vacated by Congressman Howard Coble has become acrimonious and personal in the final weeks before the May 6 primary.

With no heir apparent to the affable, 83-year-old bachelor renowned for his Madras jackets and legendary constituent services, the opening of a coveted seat for the first time in 30 years has unleashed a torrent of political ambition and raw animus within a pack of candidates who are more or less equally matched in resources and appeal, if not experience.

In a district where registered Democrats hold the largest voting bloc, conservative backers have split among two or three candidates behind whom they are seeking to unite the party. Among both moderate and conservative candidates, voters will find a combination of inside- and outside-game strategies as they jockey for position.

Fundraising totals through mid-April suggest that the Republican primary has narrowed at this point to four candidates: Phil Berger Jr., the Rockingham County district attorney and son of state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger; the Rev. Mark Walker, a former associate pastor at Lawndale Baptist Church in Greensboro; Greensboro City Councilman Zack Matheny; and Bruce VonCannon, a retired banker who has spent most of his career in Hong Kong. The Republican primary ballot also includes Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips, Greensboro businessman Mike Causey, High Point GOP activist Don Webb, Kenn Kopf of Jamestown and Charles Sutherland of Mayodan.

The odds favor a runoff, considering that an outright win requires 40 percent or more of the vote. Berger’s superior fundraising totals make him the unofficial frontrunner, and he is the only candidate who is openly talking up a goal of winning the primary without a runoff.

With an athletic build and an all-American crew cut, Berger looks like a younger, clean-shaven version of his father, arguably the most powerful Republican leader in the state. Berger’s campaign signs drop the “Jr.,” creating the possibility that some voters might confuse him with his father. As a district attorney he portrays himself as a tough prosecutor, and ideologically he positions himself as an “unapologetic, proven conservative to represent our North Carolina values.”

But Berger’s hard-line positions on guns, abortion, marriage, spending and the Affordable Care Act are belied by a mild public-speaking manner. Over the course of the campaign his applause lines have sometimes flopped.

“How many of you have a concealed weapons permit?” Berger asked during a candidate forum in Greensboro in February, raising his own hand. “Oh, come on. There are more than that.”

“If you’re able to carry your weapon into a bar or restaurant or park now, right, put it in your glove box when you take your kids to school or grandkids to school, that’s because we helped pass that bill,” he said, touting a position taken by the NC Conference of District Attorneys under his leadership.

Months later, as the only candidate to address the Wake-Up Republican Women’s Club at the Guilford County GOP headquarters, Berger focused on the mechanics of the race, cultivating an air of inevitability, instead of hammering at partisan arguments or firing up the base.

“One of the things that you really need to be successful is resources,” the candidate said. “And it’s not just people; it’s resources. We’ve raised more money than anyone else in this race. That’s allowed us to be on television since January. That’s allowed us to hopefully pollute your mailbox a little bit in these last few weeks. And we’ll do it some more. That’s allowed us to do some things that have poised us to be successful.

“I know you all have seen the poll that came out a couple weeks ago that had us 25 percent ahead of our nearest competitor,” Berger added. “No one else polled above 4 percent.”

What Berger left unsaid is that the poll in question had been commissioned by a super PAC, Keep Conservatives United, that is backing his candidacy. The poll was conducted by Florida-based TelOpinion Research. Berger’s opponents tend to question the accuracy of the poll.

The super PAC, which can raise unlimited funds but is legally prohibited from coordinating with candidates, was launched in 2011 to rally Republican voters around a conservative candidate for president — first Michele Bachmann and later Rick Santorum.

But in an echo of the 2012 presidential campaign, the conservative movement has proven to be a fractious lot, and various conservative groups hold different agendas and preferences.

Conservatives for Guilford County released its endorsements in late January before the filing period had even opened, and Berger was not its pick. Considering that Conservatives for Guilford County grew out of a Sunday school class at Lawndale Baptist Church, it’s not surprising that the group endorsed the Rev. Mark Walker, who resigned as an associate pastor at the church to run for the 6th Congressional District seat.

“We purposefully wanted to go early and unite tea parties and conservatives,” said Van Clippard, an Oak Ridge resident who served on Conservatives for Guilford County’s endorsement committee.

Clippard emphasized Walker’s social-conservative appeal in an interview after speaking as a surrogate for Walker at the Wake-Up Republican Women event.

“I think Republicans’ biggest mistake is to run conservative in the primary and then run to the middle in the general election,” Clippard said. “We need to be more like Reagan. What did he do? He stuck to his conservative principles. It’s like I said in my remarks: For my life, Scripture is the roadmap. Once I stop following it, bad things happen. Our Constitution, based on Scripture, is not broken. We don’t need to change it; we need to follow it.”

The spawn of Jesse

While Conservatives for Guilford County, a local organization relatively new on the political scene, is endorsing a pastor with no elected experience, two political operatives who learned their craft working on behalf of the late arch-conservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms are backing separate candidates in the 6th Congressional District race.

Bob Harris and Carter Wrenn both worked for the National Congressional Club, which was formed in the 1970s to help Helms retire campaign debt, and later became a significant force in conservative politics. Working on behalf of Helms, with Wrenn serving as executive director and Harris as a researcher, the team was renowned for effective — and sometimes offensive — attack ads.

“I’ve known Bob Harris for years,” Wrenn said. “I gave him his first job.”

Perhaps the most infamous ad produced for the Helms campaign, “White Hands,” aired in 1990 against Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt and now regarded as a classic example of effectively using television to mobilize white racial resentments for political gain. Wrenn has said that he was “in the room” when the ad was written.

The ad featured footage of a pair of white hands crumpling up a letter as a narrator intoned, “You needed that job and were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”

As treasurer of the Keep Conservatives United super PAC, Harris is backing Berger, while Wrenn serves as a consultant for VonCannon, representing a new iteration in the continual fragmentation of the Helms political empire. The most towering North Carolina Republican of the late 20th century, Helms served in the US Senate from 1973 until his retirement in 2002, and died in 2006.

Using tools developed to neutralize Democratic opponents, the old hands have deployed dueling attack ads leading to mutual acrimony and legal action.

A banker comes home from China

At first glance, Bruce VonCannon seems like a longshot.

A retired banker with a silvery mane of hair who wears horn-rimmed glasses, the Asheboro native’s resume is remarkably free of any political involvement. His biography exudes neither the rock-ribbed patriotism of a Richard Burr nor the tea-party fire of a Greg Brannon. He attended Princeton University on a tennis scholarship. An international banking career took him to Taiwan, Singapore, Geneva and Hong Kong, where he retired as CEO for the banking arm of the Rothschild Group.

After returning to North Carolina about a year ago, VonCannon switched his party registration from Democrat to Republican. That’s not all that remarkable, Wrenn suggested, considering that VonCannon was out of the country for 28 years. Even Helms was a Democrat before he switched parties and ran for US Senate.

“He grew up in a small town, like a lot of us,” Wrenn said, explaining his attraction. “He went to college on a scholarship. He’s never been in office and has never run for office. He’s a political outsider. He looks at the system and sees that it’s broken.

“Phil Berger, he’s sort of the epitome of a political insider,” Wrenn added. “I think we need some outsiders.”

The theme of the VonCannon campaign is broken politics. One ad produced for the campaign plays on the discomfort conservative voters might feel about the Moral Monday movement under the leadership of NC NAACP President William Barber.

Von Cannon addresses the audience, saying, “Here’s another example of broken politics.” Then the piece cuts to footage of Barber lambasting the Republican leadership in the General Assembly during a recent rally in Raleigh with church organ music swelling underneath his rhetoric: “Power drunk… immoral… they have attacked the poor and attacked the sick and attacked our children… wrong… lies….”

Cutting back to the candidate, VonCannon says, “You know, that’s foolishness. I’m Bruce VonCannon. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and go to work to cut spending and stop broken politics.”

The ad shares striking similarities to a piece produced for Republican state Senate candidate Andy Wells that features an exuberant Barber, then cuts to Wells, who says, “That’s pure posturing, but here’s the facts: Republicans cut taxes and cut spending to create jobs.”

VonCannon downplayed the race of Rev. Barber, who is African American, in an interview. He said the ad “certainly would not be intended to convey racial bias. As you may know, I have children of mixed heritage. We have had this individual that has made many remarks that conservatives don’t care about children, or the sick and infirm. I thought that was an unfair way to depict conservatives. You can also say that we don’t care about children if we’re willing to leave them with a $23 trillion debt.”

The father and son

Launching his campaign in Rockingham County last November, Berger played up his politically powerful father, whose policies have drawn weekly protests from Moral Monday movement, including sizable contingents from Greensboro.

“Dad is the conservative leader in our state,” Berger said. “He’s taking the tough fight to Raleigh, and he’s winning. In the last session, under his leadership, North Carolina passed the largest tax cut in state history. They made voter ID the law of the land. And they’ve taken on the education establishment, and they’ve put kids first, not bureaucrats. Talk about shaking things up.

“For some people it’s hard to distinguish between the two of us. He’s the one who doesn’t use the razor. But I’ll tell you how you can tell us apart: I’m the one with more friends. You know, the truth is: He’s not making a lot of friends in Raleigh. But then again, that’s not why he’s there. My guess is, I’ll inherit only half of his friends, but all of his enemies.”

Berger Jr. has not shied away from leaning on his father for help raising money. In mid-December, Berger Sr. headlined a fundraiser for his son at Caffé Luna in Raleigh whose invited guests included lobbyists with business before the state of North Carolina. Lobbyists representing Duke Energy, the NC Pork Council, Anheuser-Busch and other clients contributed at least $11,100 to the Berger Jr. campaign.

Meanwhile, Bob Harris, who has worked on campaigns for the NC Senate Caucus in addition to Helms’ campaigns, had been collecting donations to the Keep Conservatives United super PAC as early as January 2013. Unlike the candidate’s campaign, there’s no limit on the amount of money donors may contribute to the super PAC.

Keep Conservatives United raised $153,750 from donors across the state, including $50,000 from the president of Captive Aire Systems in Raleigh, $35,000 from a vice president of Rocky Mount trucking company MBM, $25,000 from Alamance County textile company Glen Raven and its CEO, $25,000 from a commercial rental property company owned by Salisbury lawyer Bill Graham, and $5,000 from the president of Greensboro-based RH Barringer Distributing Co.

Many of the same donors made significant contributions to Berger Sr.’s state Senate campaign last year, with $4,000 coming from the president and CEO of Captive Aire, $8,000 from employees of MBM, $8,000 from employees of Glen Raven, $8,000 from Bill Graham and his wife Shari, and $10,000 from employees of RH Barringer.

“There’s a lot of overlap in the groups that are interested in influencing Phil Berger Sr. and giving to Jr.,” said Bob Hall, executive director of the election watchdog group Democracy North Carolina. “It’s pretty apparent that they’re trying to win influence with Sr. These include lobbyists who can’t by law give to Sr.’s campaign who are giving to Jr.’s campaign.”

The funds have been spent on television ads and direct-mail pieces opposing three of Berger’s opponents: Walker, Matheny and VonCannon.

The most inflammatory ad produced by Keep Conservatives United targeted VonCannon and hit the airwaves around April 21. The ad charges that VonCannon “made it big as an international banker in Hong Kong working for wealthy Chinese. His private Swiss banking group partnered with Chinese trusts that own stakes in Chinese textiles.”

Driving home the point, the narrator continues, “Our competitors that took our jobs. An international banker for the Chinese representing us? Sorry, Bruce. We’d rather have the jobs back.”

The VonCannon campaign has filed notice to sue Keep Conservatives United for libel.

“I had nothing to do with Chinese textile companies,” VonCannon said in an interview. “The Rothschild family has probably in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 companies One of the companies has inbestments in aj company that is invested in Chinese textiles. I had no authority over those investments. I had no knowledge of those investments.”

Berger responded to questions about the ad in an email on Monday.

“I think there are some serious questions about Bruce VonCannon that this third party is raising,” Berger said. “Do I know all the details of VonCannon and what he did while working in China and how did his Chinese business affect American jobs? N, so I’ll let this independent group and his campaign sort out the details.”

Meanwhile, the VonCannon campaign has taken aim at Berger, charging that Berger offered a child rapist a plea deal with a three-year prison sentence, compared to a maximum sentence of life without parole, as district attorney in Rockingham County.

Berger responded in an April 25 letter to VonCannon that the ad is “dishonest in inferring that James Dunlap plea-bargained in a sentence of three years. Check the facts and you will see that he is now serving upwards of 24 years in jail at the Lanesboro Correctional Institute.”

A transcript of the March 12 sentencing of James Dunlap provided by Wrenn quotes the defense attorney attorney as stating “that yesterday Mr. Phil Berger, the elected district attorney, did come and sit in the courtroom and — as lead prosecutor and made a plea offer to Mr. Dunlap, that plea offer being to plead guilty to three counts of indecent liberties, three consecutive active sentences at the bottom of the presumptive range in exchange for a dismissal of the three B1 felonies.”

The transcripts indicates that Dunlap did not accept the plea deal because Berger refused to give him time to think about it, and that Dunlap later accepted a less advantageous plea deal resulting in a sentence of 16 to 24 years.

“What Berger did when he responded to our ad is he never even acknowledged the plea-bargain offer,” Wrenn said. “Ask him if he made the offer.”

Berger said in an email: “It’s complicated and for those who never have to try a case of this emotional level it’s hard to understand. There are also things that are confidential and improper for me to talk about. But the facts and the results are simple. Almost all of the cases that are tried by an DA’s office reanc an end via a plea bargain. Sometimes it happens early in the case; sometimes it comes when the criminal knows they’re beat.”

To burnish his law-and-order credentials, Berger responded to VonCannon’s attack with an April 26 television ad featuring Caroline Ball, whose father was murdered. “Here’s the truth,” Ball says. “Phil Berger is a tough prosecutor who cares about victims’ rights.”

‘Jobs are the focus’

While Berger, VonCannon and, to a lesser extent, Walker have emphasized their conservative bona fides, Matheny has relentlessly focused on economic development and jobs while largely shunning hot-button social issues. The Greensboro councilman announced his campaign in December at Koury Aviation, a charter jet company at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

“The interesting thing is everybody goes around and they praise Howard Coble and Ronald Reagan,” Matheny said. “But if Howard Coble and Ronald Reagan are as great as everybody said — and I’m one who says it — I most resemble Coble and Reagan because I’ve governed and been respectful of people in the other party. If Howard Coble and Ronald Reagan were running for this seat, would they still be so respectful of them? I’m hoping people will want a reasonable and accessible Republican because that’s what I am.”

Matheny said that, if elected, he hopes to be appointed to the House Aviation Subcommittee so that he can bring home funding for the airport to promote economic development. He has highlighted the expansion of HondaJet in Greensboro and Burlington during his time on city council at candidate forums. As part of a regional approach to economic development, Matheny said that when Stone Brewing expressed interest in expanding in Greensboro he insisted that Rockingham County Community College be involved in talks because of its brewing program.

While other candidates might be more attuned to the mood of Republican primary voters, Matheny is perhaps positioned to head into the general election with the most ease.

Of the nine North Carolina congressional districts currently held Republicans, the 6th provides the Democratic Party the best opportunity to pick up another seat, slim as it may be. Democrats actually hold the advantage in voter registration over Republicans — 41.7 percent to 35.9 percent — with independents absorbing most of the remainder. But the district’s voting history provides evidence of Democrats crossing over and independents voting Republican in general elections. Put another way, any Republican candidate who wants to win in general election needs to reach beyond the party base and draw votes from conservative Democrats and independents.

Republicans John McCain and Pat McCrory, along with Democrats Roy Cooper and Mike Easley, have all carried the district in past elections, while Republican Elizabeth Dole barely edged out Democrat Kay Hagan in the 2008 US Senate contest.

During the April 17 program hosted by the Wake-Up Republican Women’s Club in Greensboro, one of Matheny’s surrogates warned of the perils of electing a Republican nominee who is too conservative.

“Howard Coble has said many times he’s afraid this seat may go to a Democrat,” said Nick Wilkinson, Matheny’s 25-year-old chief of staff, who jokingly said he was not the candidate’s 12-year-old son.

The Democrats have two choices for their nominee: Bruce Davis, who is serving his third term on the Guilford County Commission, and Laura Fjeld, an Orange County resident and the former general counsel for the University of North Carolina system with no elected experience.

Davis holds two distinct advantages with voters — his experience in elective office and name recognition in Guilford, the county with the largest population in the district. But Fjeld comes into the race having raised $416,804 — a sum that dwarfs even Berger’s total.

“I think without question I would be the best candidate to go up against any of the Democrats,” Matheny said. “I have the most experience, I have the most pull. I pull Republicans, Democrats and independents. When you win with 60, 70 and 80 percent of the vote, that shows you can pull Democrats and independents. This is a Greensboro seat. It’s been a Greensboro seat for 54 years. I’m pretty well liked in Greensboro.”

A godly leader

If Greensboro voters in the Republican primary aren’t attracted to Matheny, they might be more receptive to Walker as a social conservative and political outsider.

Notwithstanding his backing from Conservatives for Guilford County, Walker cuts a compassionate and empathetic profile.

“You will never hear anything vitriolic from me,” Walker said. “If you want to change people, do it with heart not a billy club. There are parallels. This works the same in ministry, politics and business. If you see value in other human beings, you’re more likely to be able to bring them around to your point of view.”

Consistent in his principle of mutual respect, Walker has refrained from attacks on other candidates.

And on some issues, Walker has even strayed from the conservative hard line.

In a not-so-subtle dig at Berger, who signed a pledge not to raise taxes in Washington, Walker said at a February candidates forum in Greensboro: “Be wary of those who continue to sign pieces and deals from those who are special interest groups in Washington DC and Raleigh. One example that’s floating around is Grover Norquist’s tax pledge. That is part of the Washington gridlock. Congress has been signing those pledges since 1986. And as the afternoon talk show [host] Dr. Phil says, ‘How’s that working out for you?’”

On Sunday evening, Walker preached a guest sermon at Pleasant Garden Baptist Church in southeast Guilford County.

“If you’re looking for a political platform speech I don’t want to disappoint you because you’ve come to the wrong place,” Walker said from the pulpit. “This is the house of the Lord, and we’re going to talk about surrender and sacrifice and seeking God’s will tonight.”

Before preaching from the Book of Judges, Walker shared a little bit of his biography with the parishioners.

“A couple years ago I began to grow more and more concerned about where our country was headed — the liberties and freedoms that have continued to erode,” he said.

Walker’s sermon called for a second Great Awakening, slipping in a subtle jab at President Obama.

“If the true change is going to take place — we know all about ‘hope and change,’ don’t we? — but true change that’s going to take place doesn’t come from Washington DC. It doesn’t come from even good people who are trying to make a difference. But I believe it’s going to come from our towns, our churches, our pulpits of this country.”

The most specific and contemporary passage of Walker’s sermon played on perceptions among religious conservatives that they are under attack by the federal government.

“The amount of junk that we’re seeing on a daily basis and the attack on Christianity, it’s very frightening sometimes,” Walker said. “In 2012, 69 percent of all families that used the adoption credit were audited by the Internal Revenue Service. That’s compared to 1 percent of the rest of the civilian population. So I thought I’d do a little research on this. What I discovered was pretty amazing. Of the those 69 percent, three fourths of them not only are more conservative, but they consider themselves Judeo-Christian.”

Excluding historically black churches, 73.3 percent of Americans identify as Christian or Jewish, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The challenge for people of faith is to figure out how to communicate effectively with non-believers, Walker suggested.

“But part of our message and part of the way is to learn how to communicate,” he said. “It is sacrificial on our part. But that’s how they see Christ through us.”

After the sermon, Walker took a position on the front porch, greeting parishioners and handing out campaign brochures and yard signs.

But first the Rev. Michael Barrett dismissed the assembly.

“We need godly leaders,” he said. “Vote values, vote Biblical and vote heart.”

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