In their first debate, the candidates in a critical race for North Carolina’s 9th District congressional seat showed voters sharply different visions for the future of the district and the nation.
Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Mark Harris argued over issues from immigration to the investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, from NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to whether minority leader Nancy Pelosi is pulling strings in the contest.
In the end, they agreed on one big point: The differences between them.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere in the country where there’s more of a difference on the ballot,” said McCready.
“There’s a direct opportunity to choose very different paths Nov. 6,” said Harris.
The debate was sponsored by The Charlotte Observer and WBTV. Harris, a former pastor who has built a reputation as a staunch conservative, tried to paint McCready as a tool of Pelosi and left-wing Democrats, mentioning her name numerous times.
“His presence will be another vote for Nancy Pelosi,” said Harris. “Dan, Pelosi and the Democrats will wreck this economy.”
McCready, a veteran, countered by turning the question back to the race at hand.
“You’re not running against Nancy Pelosi, you’re running against a United States Marine,” McCready said.
The race has attracted national attention and big spending, as Democrats try to flip a seat that’s been held by Republicans for more than five decades. The 9th District stretches from southeast Charlotte to Lumberton and Fayetteville. Along the way, the 9th District runs through conservative suburbs in Union County, small towns like Rockingham and rural counties such as Anson and Bladen.
To retake control of the U.S. House, Democrats have to flip 24 seats. The 9th District is seen as one of their best chances to take a Republican district, with most national observers rating the race as a toss-up. Polls have been mixed, and the race is likely to stay close until the end.
The differences in their stances were apparent in some of the most divisive issues right now in American society. Asked about Eric Reid, the newly signed Carolina Panthers safety who knelt for the anthem Sunday to protest racism and injustice, McCready said that as a veteran, he chooses to stand.
“At the same time, I’m a white guy. I’ve not faced discrimination,” McCready said. “I understand someone next to me may kneel, may do that because he or she doesn’t feel heard.”
Harris said that the flag and the anthem should be held sacrosanct, not used in protests.
“I think that what it really does is speak to the values we’ve lost in the culture,” said Harris. “The value of our United States of America is something that all Americans should appreciate, should honor and should respect.”
Asked if he would support the continuation of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion, Harris said he hopes it will reach a conclusion soon.
“There has seemed to be no evidence to this point of collusion,” he said. “If they haven’t been able to find the evidence, then I think it’s time to shut it down.”
McCready was asked if he would support impeaching President Donald Trump if the Democrats retake the House. He declined to answer directly, saying he would need more information.
“I don’t deal in hypotheticals,” he said.
On tariffs and their potential impact on farmers and other U.S. businesses, the candidates both said they have concerns, but that the trade relationship with China needs rebalancing. They also both said there’s too much partisanship in Washington, and that bipartisan immigration reform is needed — after the border is secured.
McCready said that Harris is a partisan who would be aligned with the right-wing Freedom Caucus if elected. He accused Harris of “extreme, divisive, partisan politics.”
“I believe in putting country over party,” said McCready.
Harris countered that McCready would be beholden to Democratic leaders if he wins, even if he tries to forge a non-partisan path.
“Yes we want bipartisanship,” Harris said. “But there are certain political realities that all of us in the 9th District have to face.”
Polls show the race will likely be close. One New York Times survey has Harris ahead 47-42 percent, with a 5-point margin of error. A recent poll this week by the North Carolina-based Civitas Institute showed McCready up by 4 points, with a 4.7 percent margin of error.
McCready has led Harris in fundraising, federal reports show. Through June, he’s piled up almost $2.7 million, compared to about $930,000 for Harris.
Outside groups on either side, including the conservative Heritage Fund and a PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have also poured hundreds of thousands more dollars into the race.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is spending $222,000 on ads against Harris, filings this week show, and the Environmental Defense Fund said Wednesday that it’s spending $900,000 to support McCready and two other Democrats. The Patriot Majority put another $639,000 into the race supporting McCready against Harris, filings Tuesday showed.
On the other side, the Congressional Leadership Fund — the Republican super PAC affiliated with House leadership — is spending $1 million to air ads against McCready in the Charlotte market, starting this week.
McCready has emphasized his status as a veteran and promised to rise above partisan politics, with the slogan “country over party” becoming a refrain. That’s led to criticism from Republicans who say he’s avoided spelling out his positions on tough issues, such as immigration and healthcare reform.
Harris, the former pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, has positioned himself as a staunch conservative. He gained prominence in North Carolina in 2012 when he helped lead a successful campaign for an amendment to ban gay marriage.
This year Harris has drawn fire over previous sermons, including calling on wives to “submit” to their husbands, and for holding to views such as the “Young Earth” theory that the world was created less than 10,000 years ago.
A swarm of top Republicans have swept through Charlotte to boost Harris, indicating the race’s importance. Trump headlined a Carmel Country Club fundraiser for Harris and Rep. Ted Budd in August, while his son Donald Trump, Jr. and Freedom Caucus Chairman U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows held a fundraiser Tuesday in Charlotte. Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, held a rally for Harris on Monday in uptown Charlotte, followed by a three-day bus tour around the district.
On the Democratic side, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., is coming to Charlotte on Saturday to boost McCready. A rising Democratic star and fellow veteran, Buttigieg will appear with McCready at Matthews Murkland Church.
Democratic and Republican watchers both accused the other candidate of evading important issues and not being responsive.
“He’s totally obsessed over Nancy Pelosi,” Dan McCorkle, a Democratic strategist in Charlotte, said of Harris. “He didn’t take the middle ground or compromise.”
Larry Shaheen, a local Republican strategist, said McCready needs to tell voters whether he would vote impeach to Trump.
“Voters in this part of the world live by the Jesse Helms rule,” said Shaheen. “They sometimes didn’t like Jesse’s positions, but they always respected that they knew where he stood.”
The candidates are set to debate again next Wednesday, at 7:30 p.m., in a debate hosted by Spectrum News in uptown Charlotte.