Outgoing U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger said Monday he won’t run if there’s a new Republican primary in the 9th Congressional District, a move that would open the door to other candidates.
The three-term congressman lost to Mark Harris in May’s Republican primary. Harris went on to defeat Democrat Dan McCready in November — but fraud allegations, mostly involving absentee ballot irregularities in Bladen and Robeson counties, have thrown the outcome into doubt.
Pittenger, who leaves office on Thursday, said he plans to continue in private life what he’s done in Congress: organize gatherings of international lawmakers on subjects related to security and terrorism.
“I feel like what I’m going to be doing is as important as what I’ve been doing,” Pittenger, 70, told The Charlotte Observer. “I’m not going to run. I want to make that clear.”
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Pittenger’s announcement comes amid increasing uncertainty over an election clouded by allegations of fraud.
On Friday, North Carolina’s State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, which has twice declined to certify Harris’s November victory, was dissolved under a court order. That puts into doubt a scheduled Jan. 11 hearing into the fraud allegations.
The same day, incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said the House won’t seat Harris when the new Congress — with a new Democratic House majority — takes office on Thursday.
And last week the General Assembly overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s latest veto, thereby requiring that if there is a new election in the 9th District there would be a new primary as well.
Because of his name recognition, and status as a three-term congressman, Pittenger would automatically be a top contender in any new GOP primary. Harris has told WBT radio that he would definitely run. He did not return calls on Monday.
“If Pittenger doesn’t run that really does open up the field,” said Eric Heberlig, a UNC Charlotte political scientist. “A lot of other people will take that as an opportunity to run. ... That should probably help Harris, because the more candidates that are dividing the vote the better that is for him.”
The Washington Post has reported that after the primary Pittenger took his concerns about irregularities to state Republican Party officials. Pittenger, who lost the primary by 828 votes, lost Bladen County by 855. Much of the difference was in absentee votes. Harris won 437 to Pittenger’s 17.
At the center of the storm is McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County elected official and political operative hired in 2018 by Harris through consulting firm Red Dome.
On Monday, Pittenger declined to speculate on whether any fraud cost him the primary.
“It would be presumptuous of me to make a statement,” he said.
Even out of Congress, Pittenger will be busy.
Pittenger has chaired the Parliamentary Intelligence-Security Forum, which convenes lawmakers from around the world to talk about subjects such as cyber-security, terrorist financing and cryptocurrency. As chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, he has organized a dozen such events.
One in early December brought more than 300 parliamentarians and government leaders from 80 countries to Washington to meet with experts and U.S. government officials. Now Pittenger plans to do the same as a private citizen. Gatherings are already scheduled in 2019 in Paraguay, Israel and Togo.
“We have ongoing threats from multiple terrorist groups,” Pittenger said Monday. “There’s a real need to strengthen the capabilities of our partners around the world to be able to collaborate with issues ... that will allow us to prevent and stop the actions of terrorists.”
Forum speakers have included Democrat Hoyer and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. In a letter to participants, GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said, “National security at home depends on working relationships with governments around the world. ... We continue to see positive outcomes from these efforts.”
Pittenger has had a long-standing interest in global affairs.
In 1990 he founded the Charlotte Foreign Policy Forum, a group that brought in speakers such as Colin Powell, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. He once took Thatcher a bouquet of peach-colored roses during a visit to London.
As part of evangelical missions before that, he had flown by helicopter into the mountains of war-torn Guatemala in an effort to bolster then-President Efrain Rios Montt, a born-again Christian. And he once marched past KGB agents on a mission to free dissidents in the former Soviet Union.