North Carolina congressional upset raises Democratic hopes

Rep. Robert Pittenger speaks out about Paul Ryan's announcement to retire on April 11, 2018. (Photo: WWAY)

By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The defeat of North Carolina incumbent U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger in his Republican primary could give Democrats a wider opening to win the seat and alter the makeup of the House in midterm elections.

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Pittenger became the first congressional incumbent to lose this year when the Rev. Mark Harris narrowly defeated him Tuesday in a rematch of their 2016 race in the state’s south-central 9th District.

Despite edging the three-term incumbent, Harris faces a vast financial disadvantage to start the general election campaign. Democratic nominee Dan McCready, a young Iraq War veteran, solar energy company founder and Harvard Business School graduate, reported $1.2 million in his campaign coffers three weeks before his easy primary victory Tuesday. Harris, meanwhile, had just $71,000 in cash while battling Pittenger down to the wire.

Harris’ loyalty to President Donald Trump, a key element in this year’s primary, will be tested as an asset or liability in a district where Trump won 54 percent of the November 2016 vote — lower than in most North Carolina districts with Republican incumbents.

The 9th District is still considered Republican-leaning, but McCready’s narrative and fundraising has excited Democrats in the district and on Capitol Hill. One example: McCready’s primary vote total Tuesday was larger than all three Republican primary candidates combined.

“Dan is clearly energizing voters by providing North Carolinians with a strong vision for their deserved representation in Washington,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said Wednesday that the lack of an incumbent in the race “is a big disadvantage to the Republicans,” giving nervous national Republicans another choice to make in their effort to preserve the GOP’s House majority in November.

“At some point, Republicans are going to have to decide whether to give to the other competitive districts, or do they want to invest here,” Heberlig said.

A Republican has represented the 9th District, anchored in Charlotte, since 1963. Court-ordered redistricting two years ago shifted the district east through socially conservative, poor counties along the South Carolina border, then north to near Fort Bragg.

Two years ago, Harris lost by 134 votes to Pittenger in a three-man race. This time, unofficial results show him roughly 800 votes ahead of Pittenger in another three-candidate contest.

Enough Republicans and unaffiliated voters in the GOP primary chose Harris, with an extensive network of Christian conservatives from church work and previous campaigns, over Pittenger, who promoted his own social conservative credentials.

But Harris hammered Pittenger for voting for a March appropriations bill that Trump grudgingly signed while criticizing Congress for excessive spending. It turned the race into a competition over who was most dedicated to Trump’s policies, even though neither Pittenger nor Harris initially supported Trump in the presidential campaign.

Harris won praise from social and fiscal conservative groups for Tuesday’s win.

“We look forward to seeing him in Congress, where he will be a staunch advocate for taxpayers and a leader who will drain the swamp,” Jenny Beth Martin with the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund said in a news release.

Harris, the former pastor at First Baptist Church in Charlotte and ex-Baptist State Convention president, led an organization that backed passage of a 2012 amendment to North Carolina’s constitution that banned gay marriage. Voters approved it in a referendum. He ran unsuccessfully in the 2014 U.S. Senate primary, losing to eventual winner Thom Tillis.

Dan McCorkle, a longtime Democratic consultant in Charlotte, predicted Harris would be at a disadvantage for most of the summer because of McCready’s cash advantage. And he’ll face trouble being labeled an “extreme” religious conservative running under the Trump banner, McCorkle said.

If McCready wins the long-held Republican 9th District, McCorkle added, “I can also guarantee you that we will take the House back. This is a bellwether.”