Just four years ago Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger cruised to re-election unopposed to win what appeared to be as safe a congressional seat as any in North Carolina.
Now the third-term Republican finds himself facing a well-financed Democrat as well as a Republican opponent whom he edged two years ago by just 134 votes.
Democrat Dan McCready reported Friday that he raised $450,000 since announcing his campaign less than two months ago. At the end of June he had $410,000 in cash on hand – three times as much as Pittenger.
Democrats have made North Carolina’s 9th District one of about 80 that they’re targeting next year as they try to pick up the 24 seats they need for control of the House. Though the district leans heavily Republican – Donald Trump won it by 12 points – analysts say it could turn.
Though Democrats have lost a series of special congressional elections, they’ve made them close. In South Carolina’s 5th District, which Donald Trump won by 18 points last November, Democrat Archie Parnell lost to Rock Hill Republican Ralph Norman last month by just 3.2 points.
“There are signs of a Democratic wave emerging,” said David Wasserman, a House analyst with the Cook Political Report. “We’ve seen time and time again the Democratic base is more fired up.”
‘Desperate for new leaders’
Pittenger reported $132,000 on hand on June 30. Though less than McCready, it was twice as much as he had at the same time in 2015. And he went on to spend $1.2 million in the 2016 race.
“We have very good support with a dozen planned (fundraising) events to date,” Pittenger said in a statement. “We will win the primary and general elections on fiscal accountability, affordable and sustaining healthcare and my role in national security.”
Pittenger has raised a total of $335,000, according to his finance report. More than 60 percent of that came from political action committees.
A former Marine who served in Iraq, McCready, 33, is making his first bid for office.
A graduate of Duke University and Harvard Business School, he’s co-founder of Double Time Capital, a Charlotte company that invests in large solar farms. He already has attracted national attention as one of nearly two dozen veterans who plan to run for Congress as Democrats. He has been endorsed by two political groups that back veterans and by Democratic U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton of Masssachusetts, himself a former Marine veteran.
Last month former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles hosted a fundraiser for McCready at his Charlotte home.
“I’ve been focused on traveling around this district,” McCready said. “What I’m hearing loud and clear is this is about new leaders. People are desperate for new leaders. Hard-working families are getting left behind and there’s no way that changes until we get new leaders.”
McCready sidestepped questions about Trump, whom Pittenger strongly supports.
McCready is one of at least four Democrats who plan to run in the 9th District, which stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville.
Democrat Christian Cano, who lost to Pittenger last fall, has raised nearly $34,000, which includes almost $25,000 from himself. A report for Democrat Maria Warren was unavailable.
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 is a former assistant district attorney in Wilmington who entered the race in January.
The 9th District was redrawn for the 2016 election. But the district, which still includes southeast Charlotte and suburban Union County, has consistently voted Republican.
This month Wasserman changed the Cook Report’s rating of the district from “solid” to “likely” Republican. One reason was the entrance of Republican Mark Harris, pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church.
In a three-way GOP primary last year, Harris narrowly lost. He’s launching a new campaign this month.
“We believe that the district right now is poised for new leadership and we can do that,” he said Friday. “I’m concerned our Congress … has not taken more action on the policies the president has set forth.”
Anthony Yeager, a spokesman for Cano, said his candidate showed something in capturing 42 percent of the 2016 vote against Pittenger. “We’re not having a competitive primary if not for what Christian did in 2016,” he said.
“Certainly the energy and momentum are on the Democratic side,” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist. “We’ve gotten into a pattern where mid-term elections tend to be bad omens for the party in the White House. But can this momentum hold for another 15 to 16 months is the big question.”