Urging Republican voters to "drain the swamp," 9th District candidate Mark Harris is airing a new TV ad accusing opponent Robert Pittenger of being "allergic to the truth."
The ad ratchets up the attacks in what has been considered one of the state's most competitive congressional primaries.
Pittenger beat Harris by 134 votes in the 2016 primary, though a recent poll by the conservative Civitas Institute showed him with a 32 percentage point lead. A third Republican, newcomer Clarence Goins of Cumberland County, is also in the race.
Harris' ad is the latest to invoke President Donald Trump in a campaign where both of the major candidates tout their support for the president. It comes a month after Pittenger released an ad that accused Harris of trying to "stop Trump" in 2016.
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"Is Congressman Robert Pittenger just another Washington politician?" the ad asks. "Last campaign Pittenger claimed Donald Trump endorsed him. Just plain untrue. This year his ads say Mark Harris opposed Donald Trump. More lies from Robert Pittenger. ... Help drain the swamp. Defeat Robert Pittenger."
The ad refers to Pittenger's 2016 claim that then-candidate Trump had endorsed him in a tweet. An Observer editorial pointed out that the tweet came from Trump supporters, not the candidate himself.
This year Pittenger's ad said "Mark Harris worked to stop a Trump presidency." In a news release accompanying the ad, Pittenger strategist Paul Shumaker said Harris "led the 'Stop Trump' campaign" before the GOP convention.
Interviewed before the convention by WBT radio, Harris talked about his support for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. At the time, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio also were in the race.
"Coalescing behind Ted Cruz is a way to stop Donald Trump and go into the convention, get our nominee and come out and beat Hillary Clinton in the fall," Harris told WBT. Asked in the same interview whether he could support Trump were he the nominee, he said, "To be honest it's a very concerning decision that'll have to be made. ... I can't tell you I feel great about that by any stretch of the imagination."
"Mark Harris went on WBT March 10th 2016 and said he was going to the convention to stop Donald Trump," Pittenger strategist Paul Shumaker said Tuesday. "That is a fact. ... This ad is nothing but a desperate attempt by Mr. Harris to mislead voters and overcome his 32 point deficit, and is just one more example of Mark Harris trying to have it both ways."
Pittenger supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 primary.
Politifact North Carolina rated the claim in Pittenger's ad that Harris worked to stop Trump "mostly false."
"It's disingenuous to cast Harris as someone who tried to sabotage Trump without providing context that Harris not only supported Trump after he became the nominee, but was reported to be among his spiritual advisers," Politifact said last month.
But Politifact also looked at an earlier Harris claim that Pittenger is one of the "most liberal Republicans in Congress." It rated that claim as "false."
The Harris campaign said its new ad is running on both cable and broadcast stations.