NC congressional candidates spar over who's the biggest Trump supporter

The 9th District’s Republican candidates – from left, Clarence Goins, Robert Pittenger and Mark Harris – meet to debate on 
Thursday, April 19, 2018.
The 9th District’s Republican candidates – from left, Clarence Goins, Robert Pittenger and Mark Harris – meet to debate on Thursday, April 19, 2018. knikouyeh@charlotteobserver.com

Republican rivals in the 9th Congressional District squared off in the only debate of their primary campaign Thursday, trying to one up each other as President Donald Trump's most loyal supporter.

Incumbent Robert Pittenger, Mark Harris and Clarence Goins all praised the president and his policies.

Each wants a border wall and would send North Carolina National Guard troops to the Mexican border in the meantime.

Each opposes legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller.

And each supports Trump's trade policies, even if they hurt N.C. farmers in the short run.

The hour-long debate was sponsored by Spectrum News and will air Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

The race is a sort of rematch of the 2016 Republican primary, when Pittenger defeated Harris by 134 votes in the district that runs from southeast Charlotte to Fayetteville.

It's one of two North Carolina districts that Democrats hope to flip.

Democrats Dan McCready in the 9th District and Kathy Manning in the 13th have both outraised all their opponents, including the incumbents. Republican Ted Budd is running for a second term in the 13th, which stretches from Mooresville to Greensboro.

In the debate, Pittenger and Harris reprised attacks from their TV ads.

A new Pittenger ad uses Harris's own words to suggest he didn't support candidate Trump. A narrator says Harris "worked to stop Donald Trump." It cuts to a recording of Harris saying, "The way to stop Donald Trump ..." The March 2016 recording came from a WBT interview with Harris, who at the time backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Harris said of the suggestion he didn't back Trump. "When it was clear Trump was going to be the nominee, all of us got in line behind him."

"He was going to the convention to stop Donald Trump," replied Pittenger, who first backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016. "Realities are realities."

Harris, who ran an ad urging GOP voters to "drain the swamp," said Republicans expected more from a GOP-controlled Congress and White House. He criticized the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed by the president.

"I believe Republicans are saying it's time to act like Republicans," he said. "We blamed Democrats for increasing the debt. ... Now we keep spending, spending, spending and we do not cut."

He said the national debt, $16 trillion when Pittenger went to Congress in 2013, stands at $21 trillion.

Pittenger said that, like Trump, he supported the spending bill, which included $700 billion for the military.

"You can't have it both ways, Mark," he said. "You can't say you support the president and not support the budget for his military."

Pittenger blamed Democrats for forcing compromises that were difficult for some Republicans to support.

"Our battle, frankly, is with the other side," he said.

Harris said there's a battle for "the heart and soul of the Republican Party," between spenders on one side and advocates of less government and smaller debt on the other.

The candidates also were asked who they'd support for speaker to replace outgoing Paul Ryan.

Pittenger mentioned the current mainstream GOP leaders, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Whip Steve Scalise and Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. Harris said he'd favor Jim Jordan, co-founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus. Goins first said Rand Paul, who's actually a senator, before realizing his mistake and suggesting Freedom Caucus co-founder Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

For all their disagreements, the candidates agreed on one thing: the president.

Asked about Trump's trade policies, which prompted threats of Chinese tariffs which could hurt N.C. farmers, both Pittenger and Harris praised the president as a negotiator.

"Let's let Donald Trump do what he does best," Pittenger said, "and not second-guess the result."

Harris called Trump "an incredible negotiator."

"He has proven that time and time again," he said.

At one point, Goins said the race is "not about who likes Donald Trump."

It is, he said, about issues that Congress deals with.

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill