In an election year that has been friendly to outsiders, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger’s two challengers in the June 7 Republican primary are busily portraying him as a Washington insider. They say he talks like a conservative back in the 9th district but doesn’t always vote like one on the House floor.
Charlotte pastor Mark Harris and Todd Johnson, a former Union County commissioner, are hoping GOP voters angry with the Republican-controlled Congress will take out their frustrations on Pittenger, a Charlotte businessman who is running for his third term.
In a TV ad that began running last week on cable channels in Charlotte and Fayetteville, Harris included Pittenger among “Republicans bowing to Obama,” and charged that the congressman had partnered with the Democratic president and former GOP House Speaker John Boehner to “cut deals that raised the debt, gave illegals amnesty, funded Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, yet cut military funding.”
Pittenger is fighting back, touting his leadership roles on congressional panels that deal with the economy and terrorism and arguing that his voting record is being distorted by his opponents.
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In fact, the congressman said, he has voted about 40 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act; voted seven times to defund Planned Parenthood; opposes a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally; and voted for an Omnibus budget bill that bumped Defense spending by $600 billion.
He said he and other House Republicans can’t be blamed if bills they passed were later killed by President Barack Obama, with his veto pen, or the Senate, with its 60-vote threshold for passing anything controversial.
“We’ve done our work in the House of Representatives,” Pittenger said. “We’ve passed very strong conservative reform bills and we can’t get them through the Senate. The public doesn’t understand that.”
In an interview with the Observer, Pittenger accused Harris and Johnson of being more interested in making political points than in discussing how they would work – and maybe compromise – to get things done in Washington.
As president in the 1980s, Pittenger said, “Ronald Reagan would take half a loaf. He’d do whatever he had to do with (then House Speaker) Tip O’Neill. For Rev. Harris and Todd Johnson, Ronald Reagan wouldn’t be good enough. For these guys, if it’s not the whole thing, it’s not good enough.”
Johnson, in his interview with the Observer, countered by saying that Pittenger’s protestations about how complex the ways of Washington are sound like a “Washington elitist” more interested in making excuses than keeping promises.
“And that’s what people are fed up with,” Johnson said. “That’s just Washington insider garbage.”
Pittenger’s other challenges
Congress’ low public approval rating isn’t the only potential challenge Pittenger faces in his re-election bid.
Reacting to a federal court order this year, the N.C. legislature dramatically altered the lines of the 9th district, forcing Pittenger to hurriedly introduce himself – via a drumbeat of TV and radio ads – to a lot of voters who have not known him as their congressman. And the lawmakers moved the primary to June, virtually guaranteeing a low-turnout election.
There’s also the ongoing FBI and IRS investigation of Pittenger’s former real estate company. Some Charlotte area Republicans say it remains a cloud over his campaign, although Pittenger has denied any wrongdoing and said it has been a non-issue.
“I’ve knocked on 1,500 doors,” he said, “and no one has brought it up.”
On most issues, Pittenger, Harris and Johnson offer more of a conservative echo than a choice. All three take a hard-line on immigration, for example, with each stressing the importance to, first and foremost, “secure the border.”
To spur the economy, the trio agree on the need to relieve the “regulatory burden” on businesses.
They’ve all reached out to conservative Christian voters by pledging to stand up for “religious liberty” and against abortion. And on House Bill 2 and the federal response to it, they all support Gov. Pat McCrory and stand ready to battle the Obama administration.
So the only real sparks in the race so far have come in the sometimes sharply worded debate over the Washington establishment and whether Republicans in Congress – including Pittenger – have done enough to try to halt Obama’s liberal agenda.
Big budget vote
The main focus: That Omnibus budget bill that Pittenger voted for last December. While it gave the Pentagon the $600 billion the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted, it did nothing to stop federal funding of Planned Parenthood, which offers women reproductive services, including abortion.
Harris and Johnson have both criticized Pittenger for voting for it, and said they would not have.
Pittenger said his “aye” vote was based on the bill’s increase in military spending. And he pointed to a letter from the head of the National Right to Life – a leading anti-abortion group – saying there would be better ways to fight the Planned Parenthood funding than holding the Omnibus bill hostage and potentially shutting down the federal government.
“It’s so easy to say, ‘Let’s shut it down. Yeah, we’re going to show them,’ ” Pittenger said of some lawmakers’ willingness to close the government until they get what they want. “OK, what are you going to do about military benefits? It’s just not as simple as what people say.”
And by saying they would have voted the other way on the Omnibus bill, Pittenger charged, “I suppose Rev. Harris and the other fella, Todd Johnson, don’t support the military.”
That charge drew a recent rebuke on the campaign trail from Harris, who told supporters that he is acutely aware of the needs of the military in part because his father, a World War II veteran, spent time in a Nazi prison camp.
“What Mr. Pittenger has revealed (in explaining his vote on the Omnibus budget bill) is exactly the problem in Washington, D.C.,” Harris said. “Washington insiders blame the process rather than take responsibility for the vote and owning it.”
Harris also pointed out that some of the lower chamber’s most conservative members – including U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. – voted against the Omnibus bill.
Harris said he would be that kind of congressman and would seek to change a system that bunched all variety of appropriations in the same voluminous budget bill. “Planned Parenthood should not be handcuffed to the Department of Defense budget,” he said. “Period. Plain and simple.”
Added Johnson: “You have to make your decisions based on what’s right, what’s best for the country and the word you’ve given the citizens you represent. ... (In Congress), I will not only talk the talk, I will walk the walk.”
The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Christian Cano of Charlotte in November.