GOP strategist says 'fall may be brutal' for party after North Carolina primary upset

Pittenger upset by Harris: what that could mean in November

Former Charlotte pastor Mark Harris beat Rep. Robert Pittenger in Tuesday's primary in North Carolina's 9th District, making him the first incumbent in the country to lose this year. This is what it could mean in November.
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Former Charlotte pastor Mark Harris beat Rep. Robert Pittenger in Tuesday's primary in North Carolina's 9th District, making him the first incumbent in the country to lose this year. This is what it could mean in November.

Tuesday's surprising upset in the 9th District Republican primary sets the stage for not only one of North Carolina's most competitive congressional elections but one of the most closely watched in the country.

"This campaign just got nationalized," said Dan Barry, Union County's Republican chairman. "If it wasn't before, it is now."

Republican Mark Harris of Charlotte stunned three-term incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger, winning by 814 votes in the district that stretches more than 150 miles east from Charlotte to Bladen County

He'll face Charlotte Democrat Dan McCready, a former Marine who easily won his primary Tuesday.

In a district once considered solidly Republican, three rating groups moved the race toward Democrats on Wednesday. Analysts Larry Sabato and Nate Silver now call it a "toss-up."

Mark Harris is welcomed by supporters and goes on to claim victory over incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger in the Republican primary for the N.C. 9th Congressional District seat.

The race could help determine whether Democrats gain the 24 seats they need to retake control of the House. Republicans are scrambling to defend their majorities at a time of intense Democratic energy. That was evident Tuesday when, despite no serious primary challenge, McCready drew more votes than Pittenger, Harris and a third candidate, banker Clarence Goins, combined.

"(The) real story is turnout, and also Democratic turnout," Pittenger strategist Paul Shumaker said in an email. "Fall may be brutal for R's on the ballot."

Both candidates cast themselves as outsiders.

"'I'm running as a Democrat, but I like to say I'm an American and a Marine first," McCready, 34, said Wednesday. "And I think we saw last night that North Carolinians are ready for that."

Harris, 52, has run as a populist in the mold of President Donald Trump, who carried the district by 11 points.

"I recognize it's a window of opportunity to turn our nation around and represent the people and give them a voice," Harris said Wednesday.

Ninth congressional district candidate Dan McCready continued to work for votes on Tuesday, May 8, 2018 by reaching out to voters across the region.

McCready starts with a big financial advantage. He had $1.2 million on hand in mid-April. Harris had $71,000 and spent much of that in winning the primary. "We basically spent everything we had," said Harris strategist Andy Yates.

The race for what's now an open seat is expected to draw millions in outside money to both candidates.

"It has become more competitive overnight than people thought it would be," said Donald Bryson, the former North Carolina state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity and current president of the Civitas Institute. "It was already supposed to be a bit of a competitive race. Now I think it's more so because the influence of incumbency is off the race."

Raleigh's Morgan Jackson, a veteran Democratic strategist, called it "a top pick-up opportunity now for Democrats in the country."

The evangelical vote

In winning, Harris, former pastor of Charlotte's First Baptist Church, mobilized evangelical and conservative voters. While Pittenger led in Mecklenburg and three other counties, Harris piled up margins in Union and Bladen counties.

In eastern Bladen County, Harris worked connections he first built as president of the Baptist State Convention earlier this decade. He reinforced those connections during a U.S. Senate run in 2014 and two congressional campaigns.

"Pittenger maybe underestimated the influence of a small community, but definitely the evangelical vote in Bladen County is very, very strong," said Cameron McGill, pastor of Dublin First Baptist in Elizabethtown, the county seat of Bladen County. He said Harris worked the county hard including through the Bladen Baptist Association, a network of 40 Baptist churches.

Harris carried Bladen by 852 votes, more than his overall margin of victory. Turnout pushed 26 percent, compared with 14 percent statewide.

"It’s just proof that time spent in the outlying areas was probably time well-invested," said McGill, himself a former president of the Baptist State Convention.

Harris also worked hard in Union County, just south of Charlotte. He carried rural areas and held his own in the western suburbs in winning the county by 1,605 votes.

"We knew how critical Union County was," Yates said. "And our strategy from the beginning was to run in Union County like we were running for county commissioner."

Despite two polls that showed Pittenger ahead by 30 points, Yates said the race closed in the final weeks. He credits an ad that claimed Pittenger was "allergic to the truth" and Pittenger's vote this spring for a $1.3 trillion omnibus bill.

"The 'yes' vote for the omnibus gave us the ammunition we needed to finish out the race strong," Yates said. "It confirmed some of the negative thoughts some people had on Congressman Pittenger."

'We were blindsided'

Pittenger blasted those attacks Wednesday in an email to supporters.

"Mark Harris was successful in convincing enough voters that I supported Planned Parenthood," Pittenger wrote. "He even stated that I opposed border funding, supported sanctuary cities and amnesty, all fabricated and nonsense, as I am a sponsor of legislation to the contrary. We were blindsided with these baseless attacks and clearly did not respond in an adequate manner."

copy Pittenger (DC)
Rep. Robert Pittenger Jenna Eason jeason@charlotteobserver.com

Uniting Republicans in the fall could be a challenge.

"You just finished a very close, bitter, grudge rematch in which the incumbent, Pittenger, lost," said Jackson, the Democratic strategist. "The folks who were pro-Pittenger in the past have vehemently disliked Harris . . . Republicans are bitterly divided."

Kerry Rom, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Harris will appeal to the voters who backed Trump in 2016.

"Harris’ win demonstrated the outsider mentality is still alive and well in (the 9th District)," she said. "It worked for Donald Trump in 2016 and it will work for Mark Harris this fall against Dan McCready, who was hand-picked by the Democratic establishment."

McCready called Harris "a politician who practices the same kind of divisive, extreme politics that makes Washington the kind of swamp that it is."

"I guess I'm kind of offended that he calls me a politician," Harris said in response. "The president's agenda is something that I strongly support ... Dan McCready on the other hand represents the party of (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer and (House Democratic Leader) Nancy Pelosi."

State Sen. Dan Bishop of Charlotte, a Harris supporter, said Harris represents the opportunity for "real change in Washington."

But political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College said the primary wounds could be slow to heal.

"Republicans are going to vote Republican in the fall," he said. "The question is how many Republicans show up? And if this (Pittenger statement) is an early indication some Pittenger supporters may say, 'I'm not going to show up to vote for Harris.' "

But some Republicans stress that Harris could be a stronger candidate than Pittenger. He has a strong conservative base and none of the questions that beset Pittenger, whose business had been under a federal probe that ended last year without any charges.

"If you'd called me today and the reverse had happened, I would have said I'm going to support Dan McCready because I respect him and have difficulty with Robert," said former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican who is now undecided in this race. "But that's not the way I feel about Mark. I have great respect for Mark."

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill