In December 2013, just weeks after Billy Graham’s 95th birthday, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte gave all 535 members of Congress a copy of “The Cross,” a video featuring the elderly evangelist calling for a spiritual reawakening in America.
It was the kind of gesture one would expect from Pittenger, a conservative Republican whose first job out of college was assistant to the president of Campus Crusade for Christ.
During his two terms in Congress, Pittenger has cultivated – and counted on – the evangelical Christian community. To cover the cost of distributing those videos, for example, the wealthy congressman wrote a big check to the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
But as he runs for a third term this year, Pittenger, 67, finds himself scrambling to keep the support of his conservative Christian base in the wake of a GOP primary challenge from a Charlotte pastor with his own claims to that constituency.
The Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charlotte, will kick off his campaign in a big way this Thursday. He’s bringing former Republican presidential candidate – and onetime Southern Baptist minister – Mike Huckabee to the 9th Congressional District for an endorsement, rallies in Matthews and Monroe, and a fundraiser.
On top of this unexpected challenge, Pittenger is also dealing with two other potential stumbling blocks in his re-election path.
North Carolina’s new congressional map, recently redrawn by the state General Assembly in response to a federal court ruling, means dramatically different lines for Pittenger’s district. He must introduce himself to voters in the eastern half of Union County and in six additional counties that were not part of the district until two months ago.
Pittenger’s other GOP primary challenger is Todd Johnson, a former county commissioner in Union County, whose population makes up the biggest slice of the newly redrawn district – 27 percent, just ahead of Mecklenburg County’s 25 percent.
Also hovering over Pittenger’s campaign: a continuing federal investigation of his former real estate company.
The winner of the June 7 GOP primary will face Democratic newcomer Christian Cano in a 9th District where 45 percent of the voters are Democratic, up from the 32 percent in the old district boundaries where Pittenger was elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2014.
In those past races, Pittenger depended on evangelical voters as a key part of his base. Harris’ entry into the 9th District race means the congressman will have to fight to try to keep their support.
As a past president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, the 49-year-old Harris developed relationships with pastors and their conservative flocks all over the state – including in all eight counties in the new 9th District.
He also raised his name identification with Republicans two years ago when he ran for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination, though he finished third in that primary.
Last week, the Observer reached Harris as he was driving to Richmond County, one of the district’s new counties, to meet with a group of pastors.
He said he decided to run after “some folks” with concerns about Pittenger’s record and electability in the redrawn district “asked me to pray about it and consider running.”
Harris would not identify the supporters, but said he came to believe that his experience as a Southern Baptist pastor dealing with diverse congregations made him a good fit for the new district. It now stretches from southeast Charlotte to Cumberland County, including a few rural counties bordering South Carolina.
Though Harris said he will also stress economic and foreign policy issues in the campaign, he has come to be identified with the social issues that are paramount with conservative churchgoers.
As head of the N.C. Baptist group, he was a high-profile leader in the 2012 campaign to pass a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. (It passed but was thrown out by a federal court.)
He was also an early and outspoken opponent of the city of Charlotte’s expanded nondiscrimination ordinance to cover the LGBT community and to let transgender people use the bathroom of their gender identity.
“I was out there in the driving rain, speaking to the 700 people gathered (outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center) to oppose it,” Harris said.
The ordinance passed the Charlotte City Council but was overridden last month when the General Assembly passed House Bill 2 and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.
In addition to bringing evangelical favorite Huckabee to the district, Harris also has recruited Charlotte real estate developer Mel Graham, among others, to help him raise money to challenge Pittenger.
As a nephew to Billy Graham and cousin to Franklin Graham, Mel Graham is part of evangelicalism’s royal family. He also sits on the boards of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, both headed by Franklin Graham.
But Pittenger, a member of Forest Hill, a nondenominational megachurch in Charlotte, still has strong ties to the evangelical community. And he’s working hard and spending money to try to keep them from fraying in the face of Harris’ challenge.
“As a way of introduction,” Pittenger said, his campaign will be circulating in churches an online slideshow featuring contemporary Christian music star Michael W. Smith. In it, Smith not only endorses longtime friend Pittenger but also recounts the congressman’s connections to the evangelical world. Those began in 1970, when the young Pittenger worked for 10 years as the assistant to Bill Bright, longtime head of Campus Crusade for Christ.
This year, Pittenger traveled to Germany to meet with Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor released by Iran after three years in prison. The congressman worked for more than two years, along with Franklin Graham and others, to secure Abedini’s freedom.
A Pittenger campaign ad now running on WBT-AM and on Christian radio stations touts his “deep Christian faith” and his record as “a conservative standing up for pro-family values.” It also mentions his endorsements from national and state Right to Life groups that oppose abortion.
Plus, the Pittenger campaign is spreading the word about a recent Facebook post by Franklin Graham. In it, the evangelist lauded Pittenger for accusing PayPal of hypocrisy for canceling its plans for a global operation in Charlotte because of House Bill 2 while also doing business in countries where it is illegal to be gay.
Johnson, 37, an insurance salesman from the Unionville area, said he also hopes to win his share of support from churchgoers on June 7.
On his Facebook page, he identifies himself as a conservative Christian. As proof, he is telling voters that whenever it was his turn to open meetings of the Union County board of commissioners with a prayer, he always invoked Jesus’ name – even after a secular group threatened a lawsuit.
“With me, you’re not going to get celebrities or political bigwigs,” Johnson said. “I’m a regular guy who has been a strong Christian and a lifelong Baptist.”
Johnson and Harris are both hoping to tap into many GOP voters’ anger at the Washington establishment by questioning Pittenger’s conservatism.
They have criticized Pittenger’s decision to vote for an omnibus budget bill last December that included federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides reproductive services, including abortions.
“I would not have voted for that,” Harris said. “We need new leaders who are consistent conservatives and can work with passion and determination.”
Pittenger’s answer is that he has voted seven times to defund Planned Parenthood. Most recently, he supported such a bill that passed both houses of Congress only to be vetoed in January by President Barack Obama.
Pittenger said he voted for the omnibus budget bill because it also included $600 billion for the Department of Defense. Those expenditures were urged by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make up for automatic spending cuts that, Pittenger said, had weakened the Armed Forces.
“Is (Harris) not for our military?” Pittenger said. “I’m sorry he does not recognize these threats to our country.”
Tea partiers and conservative talk show hosts condemned Republicans in Congress who voted for the budget bill. But Pittenger sent the Observer a statement from National Right to Life saying there would be better avenues in the future to defund the group than shutting down the government over the omnibus budget bill. Pittenger also pointed to his endorsement by the Family Research Council Action PAC.
Still, with the primary expected to compete with early summer vacations, “you’re probably going to have the true faithful show up (at the polls), and they are most in-touch with those issues,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury. “If that plays out, Pittenger will have to do some hard-selling.”
Pittenger would seem to have the resources to do that. In 2012, the year he won his congressional seat, he spent $2.3 million of his own money on the campaign.
Dave Wasserman, who tracks U.S. House races for the Washington-based Cook Political Report, says Pittenger has two vulnerabilities as the primary approaches.
“(One is that) a majority of the district has not been in his district before,” Wasserman said.
The other danger for him, Wasserman said, is the FBI-IRS investigation of his former real estate company. Pittenger has denied any wrongdoing and told the Observer that “I wouldn’t be running unless I knew all of this would be cleared.”
“It seems like a wide-open race at this point,” former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord said of the 9th District GOP primary. “Turnout will be the biggest wild card.”
Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.