In a race that could land on the front lines of a Republican civil war, GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger applauded President Donald Trump Monday – even as he campaigned with one of Trump’s sharpest critics.
Pittenger’s appearance with Republican strategist Karl Rove came on the day that new fundraising reports suggested that he could face not only a tough primary challenger but a well-financed Democrat.
“How can you bring in the head cheerleader of the anti-Trump agenda in the Republican Party and still claim to support President Trump,” said Andy Yates, consultant for Pittenger’s GOP opponent, Mark Harris. “You either stand with Karl Rove and the anti-Trumpsters or you don’t.”
New reports showed that Harris, former pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, raised $251,000 during the third quarter to Pittenger’s $242,000.
Pittenger, who beat Harris by just 134 votes in last year’s 9th District primary, has raised a total of $576,000 in his campaign.
Democrat Dan McCready outraised them both with $416,000 in the quarter, bringing his total to $875,000. Last month Roll Call reported that only three Democratic challengers in the country had raised more than the former Marine from Charlotte.
Rove, an adviser to former President George W. Bush, headlined two Pittenger fundraisers Monday. He has been a frequent target of anti-establishment Republicans such as Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser.
Along with a handful of prominent conservatives, Bannon has vowed to recruit candidates to challenge Republican incumbents. Speaking to a conservative group this weekend, he declared “a season of war against a GOP establishment.”
“They want it to be (a war),” Rove told the Observer. “I don’t think it needs to be.”
“What I admire about Pittenger,” Rove continued, “is he has been a strong, consistent conservative in Congress. And what that means these days is he’s been a defender of the president’s policies.”
Walking a line
Pittenger has been a consistent Trump defender. “I’ve never been more encouraged than where we are today,” he told about three dozen supporters at a SouthPark restaurant. “Because we have a president with a clear vision of our challenges.”
Pittenger appears to be walking a line between seeking support from mainstream Republicans and from GOP voters fed up with the status quo.
“It sounds like Pittenger is trying to have it both ways,” said political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College. “The question is will that backfire. If a moderate Republican who is not a Trump loyalist sees Pittenger toeing the president’s line, will that voter show up?”
Wearing a red Make America Great Again cap, Trump Republican Debby Presson came to see Pittenger at the event at Maggiano’s restaurant.
“I don’t consider (Pittenger) an establishment Republican,” she said. “He has a good record of voting for Trump. Karl Rove? I didn’t come here for him.”
Brian Talbert, founder of Deplorable Pride, a conservative LGBT group, described himself as more a Bannon than Rove fan. “But I’m here to support Pittenger,” he said.
Kyle Kondik, spokesman for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said it’s tempting to “over-nationalize” the GOP race, which could turn on other factors. “What’s probably more important is that Harris was a decent challenger and Pittenger has some weaknesses,” he said.
Fifty-seven percent of Pittenger’s contributions – $327,000 – came from political action committees.
Pittenger aides say the congressman also has raised money for what’s known as a joint fundraising committee. The Pittenger Victory Fund, an effort between the campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee, has raised $263,000 this year. That’s shared by the campaign and the NRCC, the congressional campaign arm of the Republican Party.
“Congressman Pittenger has been focused on helping President Trump push his agenda through Congress and holding town hall meetings across the district,” said Pittenger chief of staff Clark Fonda. “As we move closer to election day, we will begin the process of devoting more time to the campaign.”
Hoping for a wave
Last fall, Trump won the 9th District with 54 percent of the vote. The Center for Politics rates it as safe Republican. But McCready, who has at least two Democratic challengers, is confident things will break his way.
“People believe in this campaign because they know I’m not a politician,” he said in a statement. “I’m an American and a Marine first and I’m here to fight for the majority of folks in our district who don’t have a voice in Washington.”
Bitzer said it could come down to Democratic fortunes nationwide. Historically the party in power loses congressional seats in non-presidential years.
“We may see a wave election,” Bitzer said. “The question is how big is the tidal wave?”