Politics & Government

Primary brings U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger a tea party challenge

With no Democrat on the ballot, freshman U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger’s only challenge this year will come in the 9th District’s Republican primary.

Pittenger, 65, faces Mike Steinberg in a rematch of sorts. In 2012, the two were among 11 Republicans who battled for the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick.

Steinberg, who finished seventh, vows this time will be different.

“The dynamics of this race are much different,” says Steinberg, 50, who has the backing of many tea party conservatives.

One dynamic hasn’t changed: Pittenger’s financial advantage.

A millionaire real estate investor, he’s raised nearly $700,000. Two years ago, he spent $2.3 million of his own money. Nationally, only three House candidates who went on to win spent more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Steinberg’s financial report was unavailable.

Impromptu debate

With Pittenger declining an invitation to this week’s League of Women Voters debate, the only meeting between the two was an impromptu exchange outside last month’s Mecklenburg GOP convention.

Steinberg had criticized Pittenger for voting to end last fall’s government shutdown. Pittenger was one of 87 Republicans voting with House GOP leaders and most Democrats to end the shutdown, despite the fact that meant continued funding for the Affordable Care Act.

As Pittenger was defending his conservative credentials to a reporter in the hallway, Steinberg walked up.

“You voted for Obamacare,” he charged.

“I voted to end a senseless gimmick,” Pittenger replied.

“You voted for Obamacare, just say it,” Steinberg said.

“I voted to end a senseless shutdown of the federal government,” Pittenger shot back.

For Steinberg, a constitutional conservative, the primary is a referendum on Pittenger, and particularly his October vote.

Last fall’s shutdown, Steinberg says, was “what it takes to get both parties to sit down and get serious about addressing the $18 trillion (federal) debt. You keep the government shut down until you’ve solved the problem.”

The 9th District, he says, “is more conservative than Mr. Pittenger’s voting record in Congress.”

Conservative ranking

Pittenger ranks as the 67th most conservative member of the House, according to a review of votes by the National Journal. Heritage Action, political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, gave Pittenger a score of 87 percent.

That tied him for the second most conservative member of North Carolina’s delegation, trailing only GOP Rep. George Holding.

“The issues that (Steinberg) brought up, we frankly agree on 99 percent,” Pittenger says. “There’s a matter of process. It was futile to me to seek to try to change the (health care) law when you did not have the votes in the Senate. … Time would be better spent trying to defeat (Democratic Sen.) Kay Hagan and have Republican control in the Senate.”

Pittenger described himself as a “business-minded conservative” who works across party lines and even co-chairs the United Solutions Caucus, a bi-partisan coalition of freshmen.

“I stand for the values I believe are consistent with my district,” he says.

Pittenger is a member of the House Financial Services committee, which oversees the banking and financial industries. He also has traveled extensively.

As chairman of the Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, he has joined congressional delegations in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. At one point late last year, he’d made five trips in five months.

Steinberg is confident he’ll have the grassroots support he needs. He knows the odds are long against any incumbent, let alone one able to drop millions into a race. He doesn’t mind the David and Goliath comparisons.

“I know who won that battle,” he says. “I might be the only guy in Charlotte who’s not going to be surprised if I win.”