GOP rep faces old foe in N.C. primary

GOP rep faces old foe in N.C. primary
© Greg Nash

Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) is looking to put the past behind him in next week’s primary, where he’ll face a challenge from the same foe that nearly cost him a third term two years ago. 

On May 8, Republican voters will choose between Pittenger and Pastor Mark Harris, who came within 134 votes of knocking Pittenger off in the district’s 2016 GOP primary.

But like many Republican primaries this cycle, this race is as much about President TrumpDonald John TrumpMia Love pulls ahead in Utah race as judge dismisses her lawsuit Trump administration denies exploring extradition of Erdoğan foe for Turkey Trump congratulates Kemp, says Abrams will have 'terrific political future' MORE as it is about the candidates. Both candidates have raced to portray themselves as dedicated Trump supporters — although whichever candidate emerges from the primary will still face a tough general election.

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“It represents more the change in the political context than it does anything about the two candidates,” said Davidson College political science professor Susan Roberts. 

“Pittenger is aligning himself so much with Trump ... [as] a way to counter the religious advantage of Harris," she added, comparing the GOP primary electorate’s support of Trump to religious devotion. 

Trump is at the center of the messaging for both campaigns.

In campaign ads, Pittenger extols the importance of saying “Merry Christmas” and celebrates how he “worked with President Trump” in voting for the GOP tax plan.

Harris’s ads tell a different story. At its core, Harris’s campaign is similar to the one he ran in 2016 — blasting Pittenger as an insider, while also expressing conservative frustration with the pace of progress in Congress, calling on “new leadership” to “drain the swamp.”

Harris is trying to build on his near-win in 2016 by accusing Pittenger of lacking conservative bona fides. But Pittenger has used his embrace of Trump as a way to soften those attacks. 

During a debate last week, Harris attacked Pittenger for voting for the recent congressional spending bill that raised the deficit and doesn’t explicitly defund Planned Parenthood — all while providing “nothing” for Trump’s signature border wall.

“The House of Representatives is ignoring one of the greatest national security crises we have today — the national debt,” he said during the debate. “That is a national security problem we have to get a hold of quickly.”

Pittenger has responded by saying he voted for the bill as a way of supporting Trump, who criticized the bill but signed it arguing the military spending was too important to risk a veto. 

“We can’t have this both ways, Mark. You can’t say, ‘I support the president,’ but say, ‘I’m not going to support his budget for the military.’ That’s nonsense,” he said.

Harris supporters say Pittenger is trying to have it both ways by both supporting the leadership-backed spending bill and claiming that he voted for it for Trump. 

“He’s tried to use Trump as a crutch, but he ignores the fact Trump called the bill ridiculous, said he’d never vote for something like this again, admonished Congress for forcing his hand,” Andy Yates, a strategist working with Harris, said of the spending bill. “There’s a difference between voting for a bill President Trump signs and claiming you are for Trump, and actively supporting the Trump agenda.”  

The debate last week turned into a tug-of-war over Trump, with both candidates accusing the other of not being sufficiently loyal to Trump — even though neither candidate initially backed Trump during the 2016 presidential primary.

A third candidate in the race, Clarence Goings, even complained that his opponents were so focused on praising Trump that they were avoiding actual issues.

“It’s sad what this race has came to that one of the highlights is ‘which one wants to skip around with Donald Trump the most?’ ” said Goings, who isn’t expected to make a significant showing in the primary. 

Polls on the race vary, although Pittenger is ahead in all of them. 

Pittenger had an enormous, 32-point lead in the only public poll conducted on the race. In the late March poll from the Civitas Institute, Pittenger leads Harris, 52 percent to 20 percent. He also enjoyed a strong 56 percent approval rating.

A Pittenger campaign poll taken in April found him up by a similar margin, with a strong favorability rating. But Harris’s campaign released far different results from an internal poll of their own that showed Pittenger with an 8-point lead. 

Pittenger’s team is confident in their numbers, which echo the Civitas findings.

But Harris’s allies are placing their hopes in the difficulty of predicting a low turnout primary. They also point to early voting numbers that show stronger turnout in the eastern part of the district, where Harris was stronger in 2016, according to Civitas’s N.C. Vote Tracker

Other factors make the race even harder to predict.   

In 2016, the district boundaries were changed dramatically just months before the primary, eroding some of the power of Pittenger’s incumbency. Now both candidates have a full cycle of campaigning in the entire district. 

While Harris is running at a significant cash disadvantage again, he performed strongly in 2016 even as Pittenger outspent him by more than three times.

Many Washington Republicans have backed Pittenger, as they look to back incumbents who may be most likely to survive a Democratic wave in November.

Both House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHillicon Valley: Russian-linked hackers may have impersonated US officials | Trump signs DHS cyber bill | Prosecutors inadvertently reveal charges against Assange | Accenture workers protest border enforcement work | App mines crypto for bail bonds McCarthy, other Republicans back Ratcliffe to be next attorney general Democrat Katie Porter unseats GOP's Mimi Walters MORE (R-Calif.) and House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseMcCarthy, other Republicans back Ratcliffe to be next attorney general Rep. Mike Johnson wins race for RSC chairman Election Countdown: Florida Senate race heads to hand recount | Dem flips Maine House seat | New 2020 trend - the 'friend-raiser' | Ad war intensifies in Mississippi runoff | Blue wave batters California GOP MORE (R-La.) —who are angling for the spot of GOP leader once Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow this year’s freshmen can save the Congress — and themselves Democrat Katie Porter unseats GOP's Mimi Walters Amazon fleeced New York, Virginia with HQ2 picks MORE (Wis.) retires — have fundraised for Pittenger in the district. Ryan has also offered fundraising help too, a House GOP campaign aide told The Hill.

Vice President Pence also lauded Pittenger at a tax event in the district last month that was not related to the campaign. 

Pittenger will need the money if he emerges from the primary. Democratic hopeful Dan McCready, a veteran and small-business owner, has outraised the combined GOP fundraising effort in the district, which Trump won by 11 points in 2016.

Pittenger isn’t from the only GOP incumbent facing a difficult primary challenge. Reps. Walter JonesWalter Beaman JonesHow Republicans who voted against ObamaCare repeal fared in midterms Trump deals with Saudis may be worth much less than 0 billion GOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia MORE (N.C.), Martha RobyMartha Dubina RobyOcasio-Cortez: 'I was stopped because it was assumed I was an intern' Insurgency shakes up Democratic establishment Dem House candidate claims Russians tried to hack campaign website MORE (Ala.), Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherDemocratic gains erasing House GOP in California California New Members 2019 McCarthy defeats Jordan for minority leader in 159-to-43 vote MORE (Calif.) and Dan Donovan (N.Y.) could also face tough primary fights, a fact that further complicates Republican hopes for keeping the House majority.

Andrew Bates, a Democratic strategist with the Washington-based American Bridge, told The Hill in a statement that the Republican primary fight over which candidate is most loyal to Trump will make it easier for Democrats to tie the GOP nominee to the president in November.

"In a change election, Robert Pittenger and Mark Harris are tripping over each other to put party over country in Donald Trump's scandal-choked Washington,” he said. “Voters are sick of this kind of partisanship, and they'll punish politicians who ignore that."

Roberts, the Davidson professor, cited anecdotal examples suggesting strong Democratic ground game in the area. Still, she remains skeptical that Democrats will take the seat.

“I don’t know what will happen in the general election, but I think that — given the president always loses seats in the midterm election — I don’t think it’s going to be this one,” she said.