U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger won a razor-thin victory Tuesday night in the race for the Republican nomination in North Carolina’s 9th congressional race.
According to final but unofficial results, Pittenger received 34.96 percent of the vote, slightly ahead of the Rev. Mark Harris, who had 34.42 percent.
The margin of victory was a mere 142 votes, and under state law, Harris would be entitled to a recount. On Tuesday night, Harris told supporters he would not concede.
“We intend to walk through that process until we know every citizen had an opportunity to have their vote heard,” he said.
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Harris campaign manager Mark Knoop said the candidate would call for a recount.
“We kind of owe it to the district to do a recount,” Knoop said. “Sixty-five percent of the district voted against the incumbent. That’s a hell of a number.”
Asked about Harris’ comments, Pittenger told the Observer: “This is America. It’s his privilege.”
A second challenger in the race, former Union County commissioner Todd Johnson, received 30.62 percent of the vote.
Although Pittenger prevailed, the results were not a strong showing for a two-term incumbent congressman. Nearly twice as many voters cast their ballots against Pittenger than for him. And had there been a runoff in the race, Pittenger would have had to face off against Harris.
Sixty-five percent of the voters “said it’s time for new leadership in Washington, D.C.,” Harris said Tuesday night.
In the end, Mecklenburg was the key county. Pittenger captured most of the south Charlotte precincts while Harris won the the county’s far eastern suburbs.
Outside Mecklenburg, Johnson was the winner in five of the district’s eight counties, including Union County, according to the unofficial results. Pittenger won in Mecklenburg County, but was last in all of the other counties. Harris won in two counties: Robeson and Cumberland.
Going into Tuesday, all three campaigns were expecting a low turnout. In most years, there is a run-off between the top two vote-getters if nobody gets 40 percent. But this year, the legislature ruled there would not be one in any of the congressional races after redrawing the districts following a federal court order.
Pittenger will face Democratic newcomer Christian Cano, who was unopposed Tuesday, in November.
Confident he will go on to win a third term in November, Pittenger told the Observer: “I’m happy to serve and get to know the people in the eastern part of the state.”
Democrats make up 45 percent of the voters in the new 9th district, up from the 32 percent in the old district boundaries where Pittenger was elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2014.
Pittenger spent most of Tuesday greeting voters at a polling place – Tirzah Presbyterian Church – south of Waxhaw in Union County.
Harris visited four polling places – schools in Monroe, Indian Trail, Matthews and Charlotte.
And Johnson concentrated on the western part of Union County, campaigning at polling places in Waxhaw and Indian Trail.
Union County’s population makes up the biggest slice of the new 9th district – 27 percent, just ahead of Mecklenburg County’s 25 percent. The campaigns said Tuesday that they also expected the great majority of the actual votes to come from those two counties.
GOP voters in the 9th were ultimately asked to decide whether having experience working in Washington was a plus or a minus.
Pittenger stressed his membership on the key House Financial Services Committee, which oversees banks, and his leadership role on a congressional task force focused on fighting terrorism.
That familiarity with Washington experience was persuasive for retirees Robert and Diane Wagstaff. The Charlotte couple cast their ballots for Pittenger.
“He’s got time in office, a little seniority – and I like the guy,” said Robert Wagstaff, a former economist and nuclear engineer.
In their bid to unseat Pittenger, challengers Harris and Johnson tried to tap into Republican anger at Washington. They said the incumbent congressman was part of a GOP establishment that has not done enough to cut spending, repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood.
Harris and Johnson said they’d be more like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and North Carolina’s own U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows – insurgents who have angered Republican leaders by voting against raising the debt ceiling and against an omnibus budget bill.
Dave Giles, a Charlotte manufacturing rep, explained his vote for Harris this way: “I’m just tired of Pittenger. I think we need a change.”
Because of the new district lines, Pittenger had to introduce himself to voters in the eastern half of Union County and in six additional counties. Also hovering over Pittenger’s campaign was a continuing FBI-IRS investigation of his former real estate company; Pittenger has denied any wrongdoing.
The winner (in bold) is the Republican nominee.
Mark Harris 34.42%
Todd Johnson 30.62%
Robert Pittenger 34.96%
210 of 210 precincts reporting