As President Donald Trump’s controversies swirl, Democrats are eyeing districts such as Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger’s as their improving prospects to win a majority in the House of Representatives next year.
Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to win control of the chamber. Their best chances are regarded as the 23 districts with GOP House members that Democrat Hillary Clinton won last year.
But they need more, and that’s where Pittenger, R-N.C., who’s endured several controversies himself, is an attractive target. Three challengers have emerged, with Dan McCready, 33, a Iraq War veteran and Charlotte entrepreneur, set to enter the race Wednesday.
Prospects are looking brighter for the Democrats in the Charlotte-area district that Pittenger won easily last year. “I think if the Democrats have a wave election, it’s a district they could take, a candidate they could take,” said Eric Heberlig, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte political science professor.
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“In a neutral year, it would be a real uphill climb for them,” he said. “But if the Democrats are going to win a majority in the House of Representatives they have to put districts like Pittenger’s in play.”
Inside Elections, a nonpartisan group that analyzes congressional races, says 39 Republican and 14 Democratic seats are in play.
Maddie Anderson, a National Republican Congressional Committee regional press secretary for the South and Midwest, accused Democrats of “grasping for opportunities, as they have been since they suffered massive losses in November.”
Pittenger’s Democratic rivals insist that momentum is growing, and they look just to the south as a reason why.
“Look at Jon Ossoff, what he’s doing,” said Anthony Yeager, political director for Christian Cano, a Democrat who’s also seeking the Pittenger seat.
Ossoff is the Georgia Democrat who nearly won the initial race for the suburban Atlanta U.S. House seat once held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Ossoff has raised more than $10 million for next month’s runoff election to fill the seat.
“Tom Price has been winning that seat by 15-20 points. But when people start paying attention and they say, ‘Hey, I can win this district,’ now that race is going to won by a handful of points,” Yeager added. “That’s what’s going to happen in the 9th here,” a reference to Pittenger’s congressional district.
Among those in the race will be McCready, who said he had led a platoon of 65 Marines during combat operations in the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq. He is a co-founder and managing partner of Double Time Capital, a Charlotte-based clean energy investment firm that has helped build solar farms throughout the state.
“I was content until just six months ago to spend time with my kids . . . and continue building my business,” said McCready, a first-time office-seeker who wants to keep but repair former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act to lower premiums.
But he’s running in a relatively conservative district and agrees with Trump about the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade deals on North Carolina workers. “I just feel now that the American dream I fought for overseas is under attack here at home.”
McCready will become the third Democrat to enter the party’s primary to vie for the chance to unseat Pittenger, a three-term incumbent who serves on the House Financial Services Committee and is a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee’s steering committee.
Maria Collins Warren, 48, a Robeson County resident who teaches law at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and is a former assistant district attorney in Wilmington, entered the race in January.
Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, 57, said he was also considering jumping into the race.
Pittenger remains confident. “We have a strong presence and broad support in the 9th Congressional District,” he told McClatchy this week.
He cited what he called the collapse of Obamacare, noting that several insurance companies have left the state “and other carriers (are) referring to Obamacare being in a death spiral. The big government liberal-progressive agenda of the Democrat party does not align with the 9th District and we are not concerned with the outcome of the Democrat primary.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has Pittenger on its target list, pointing to his vote for the Republican-sponsored American Health Care Act in the House and some controversial statements he’s made.
When asked earlier this month about people with pre-existing conditions losing health insurance under the Republican plan if a state waives the protection, Pittenger reportedly responded, “People can go to the state they want to live in.”
Pittenger, in a May 11 opinion piece for The Charlotte Observer, a McClatchy property, said he had told the “liberal blogger” who posed the question that “in a very unlikely worst-case scenario, someone might choose to move to a state which offered a specific benefit superior to the standard Obamacare-style benefits available in their state.”
In September, Pittenger told the British Broadcast Corp. that demonstrators who had taken to Charlotte’s streets to protest the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, an African-American, “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.”
He apologized for the comment.
Heberlig said while Pittenger’s remarks could be damaging, Democrats lost a major avenue of attack when the Justice Department ended its nearly two-year investigation into whether Pittenger had improperly transferred money to his 2012 campaign from his real estate company.
Still, Heberlig said, Pittenger is “potentially vulnerable” to a Democratic challenger.
McCready and the other Democratic contenders in the 9th Congressional District agree.
Pittenger “as a candidate is gettable because, partly, the more he talks, the worse it sounds,” said Matthew McGregor, Warren’s campaign manager.