With just days to go before Tuesday’s primary election, the three candidates vying to become the Republican nominee in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district are campaigning and spending money as if the race is a dead heat.
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger and challengers Mark Harris and Todd Johnson are all expecting a low turnout. And, unlike in previous years, there will be no run-off election if none of the three gets at least 40 percent. Whoever gets the most votes Tuesday is the GOP nominee and will face Democrat Christian Cano in November.
Further clouding the picture: The 9th district’s lines were dramatically redrawn by the legislature this year, meaning many of its voters are new to Pittenger. That could partially erase the traditional advantage of an incumbent. The new 9th stretches from southern Mecklenburg County east to Bladen County.
Still, Pittenger has out-raised his rivals by more than 5-1, thanks in large part to contributions from a long list of corporate PACs.
“Our polling indicates we are in the lead, but it is precarious because of anticipated low voter turnout,” Pittenger wrote in a May 26 fundraising email to supporters. “Our consultants strongly recommend an additional major network TV ad buy to support turnout. Along with additional mail and radio, we are spending over $200,000 more than planned the last two weeks.”
Among other things, Pittenger’s campaign has emailed videos and recorded automated calls featuring former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani endorsing Pittenger.
Johnson, a former Union County commissioner who owns an insurance company, has loaned his campaign nearly $100,000 – more than $20,000 of his own money and $70,000 from a bank. He also launched his first TV ad on cable stations in Charlotte and Union County.
In it, he casts himself as an outsider who fights for conservative values in Washington. “Barack Obama is destroying America and Congress isn’t doing enough to stop him,” Johnson says in the 30-second spot.
Harris, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, is tapping into support from a network of fellow social conservatives, including some who have been high-profile proponents of House Bill 2.
On Thursday, Harris was joined at a rally in Mecklenburg County by state Rep. Dan Bishop, who sponsored the controversial bill. Harris’ campaign also announced that the Baptist pastor had received an endorsement from Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition – a conservative group that has organized pro-HB2 rallies around the state.
Johnson’s late report
Johnson’s campaign was scrambling Thursday to try to file an overdue campaign finance report update with the Federal Election Commission covering April 1 to May 18.
The FEC sent the campaign a letter saying it had until 5 p.m. Friday to file the report before the commission imposed possible financial penalties and perhaps even performed an audit.
“I’m working on it right now,” Baxter Starnes, the Johnson campaign’s treasurer, said late Thursday.
Through May 18, Starnes said, Johnson has raised almost $74,000 in contributions and spent about $92,000.
Besides the TV ad, Johnson has sent mailers to voters in the districts, some of them noting that Pittenger’s former land company is being investigated by the FBI and IRS.
In addition, Johnson said, Pittenger’s opponent in the 2014 Republican primary, Mike Steinberg, paid to create and air a radio ad on Charlotte’s WBT (1110 AM) that disputes Pittenger’s conservative credentials and endorses Johnson.
Johnson said he did not solicit the ad from Steinberg, but the candidate is heard at the end of it saying that he approved it.
Money from banks
In its FEC filing, the Harris campaign reported raising $131,792 through May 18. It spent $82,247. Cash on hand: $49,545.
Pittenger’s campaign, meanwhile, reported raising $776,982 and spending $749,859. Cash on hand: $101,317.
Like most members of Congress, Pittenger received contributions from political action committees formed by corporations, trade groups and other members of Congress.
A member of the House Financial Services Committee, Pittenger reporting numerous contributions from bank PACs. In this 2016 election cycle, for example, he has received donations totaling $6,000 from Bank of America’s PAC and $7,500 from the Wells Fargo PAC.