News: CJ Exclusives

Incumbent Pittenger faces primary rematch against Harris, who almost won in 2016

Republicans separated by 134 votes in last primary both embrace President Trump's agenda

Republican primary, U.S. House District 9 (Anson, Richmond, Robeson, Scotland, Union, and parts of Mecklenburg, Bladen, and Cumberland counties)

• Robert Pittenger (three-term incumbent). Education: University of Texas, political science degree. Occupation: Real estate investor. Career highlights: Serves in U.S. House as vice chairman of U.S. House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Illicit Finance, and chairs Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare; former state senator.

• Mark Harris. Education: Appalachian State University, political science degree. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, master’s and doctor of ministry degrees. Occupation: Pastor. Career highlights: North Carolina Baptist Convention president; Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary Board of Directors chairman; led 2012 campaign to pass Amendment One state ban on same-sex marriage.

• Clarence Goins. Education: Campbell University Lundy-Fetterman School of Business. Occupation: Banker.

The Rev. Mark Harris and U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger sit in the same choir, singing the praises of President Donald Trump. But they hold very different views on the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending package Congress passed.

They’re waging a Republican primary rematch for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, which the GOP has held since 1963. Pittenger won the three-way 2016 primary by 134 votes of more than 26,000 cast. Pittinger got 9,299 votes, Harris 9,165, and Todd Johnson 8,142.

Pittenger and Harris expressed generally similar views in interviews with Carolina Journal.

Clarence Goins is the third man in the ring. Efforts to interview him were unsuccessful.

Harris and Pittenger’s embrace of Trump should appeal to GOP voters in the district, said Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, during a presentation April 23 at the John Locke Foundation. That might be a winning strategy in the primary, but could pose problems in the Nov. 6 general election.

“Finances are a big factor here,” Kappler said.

According to Federal Elections Commission campaign finance reporting data through March 31, Pittenger spent $883,333 since Jan. 1, 2017, and had $253,453 cash on hand. Harris spent $401,065 since July 1, and has $89,828 cash on hand. There was no information on file for Goins.

On the Democratic side, Dan McCready spent $521,190 since Dec. 30, 2016, and has $1.3 million cash on hand, according to FEC records.

“He’s got the money to make this a real race,” Kappler said of McCready, McCready has a primary with Christian Cano, the 2016 Democratic nominee. Cano spent $40,769 since Jan. 1, 2017, and has $146 cash on hand.

Pittenger defended the $1.3 trillion spending plan he voted for.

“I think people need to be very clear-eyed in what they’re doing before they start attacking an important, fiscally accountable bill,” Pittenger said. Two-thirds of budget spending is mandatory. About a half of the other third goes towards the military, and only about 17 percent is discretionary spending, he said.

The nation faces unprecedented threats from Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, and multiple terrorist organizations, Pittenger said. The budget strengthened the military, which was weakened during the Obama years.

“I think it was a betrayal of the American people. I certainly think it was a betrayal to every true, conservative Republican,” Harris said of the omnibus. “I don’t support Congress acting recklessly, and that is exactly what we saw.”

He said the House should have passed a separate defense spending initiative instead of using the military as cover for a bloated budget that requires more borrowing to pay for it.

Pittenger commends Trump for his threatened use of tariffs, and believes the president’s tough stance already is having an impact on foreign nations’ trade stance.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever had a businessman in the White House who knows how to negotiate, so let’s let Trump play out his hand and follow the process,” Pittenger said.

“I’m not a fan of tariffs, and I don’t think there is evidence long term that they are good for anybody,” Harris said. “But I am willing at this stage to take a wait-and-see approach while negotiations are going on.”

Pittenger supports the Second Amendment, and defends the National Rifle Association against anti-gun organizations.

He believes school security needs beefed up, but not with a one-size-fits-all mandate from Washington. He believes cultural decay, and violence in movies, television shows, and video games are to blame in large part for mass shootings.

Like Pittenger, Harris said law enforcement failures time and again contributed to mass shootings including the Parkland, Florida, school attack.

“My position is simply that we’ve got to make sure that we are enforcing the laws we currently have,” Harris said.

But Harris said the left is too quick to politicize school shootings before people have a chance to grieve. He said schools should use the shootings to remind their generation the Second Amendment’s freedom to bear arms is meant to protect against a tyrannical government.

Pittenger supports a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Border control is not just an immigration issue. It’s a drug issue. It’s a national security issue. We’re 40 percent porous,” Pittenger said.

Pittinger said Trump agreed to deal with residents who came under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law, “in exchange for securing this country, dealing with sanctuary cities and many other reforms that are needed,” Pittenger said. “Shame on Democrats who don’t want to find solutions. They just want to use it as a political hammer to campaign with.”

Harris thinks Trump was too generous in offering to provide a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million DACA recipients brought here illegally by their parents because it rewards lawbreaking. He said he supports an end to chain migration, the diversity visa lottery, and implementing an e-verify system for employers to check the legal status of prospective hires.

He said he is a strong supporter of building the southern border wall, noting Republicans paid for Planned Parenthood in the $1.3 trillion spending plan but not full funding for the wall.

Pittenger and Harris both believe Trump has been a successful leader.

Pittinger cited a growing economy, falling unemployment, especially for African Americans, wages going up, corporations returning operations to America, job creation, regulatory reform, and the successes against ISIS. “I think we’re at the tip of the iceberg,” Pittenger said.

Harris said he agrees with many district voters that Trump is doing a good job, and evangelicals support him because he is strong on religious liberty issues.

Yet he thinks Trump should have vetoed the $1.3 trillion spending package. He said he can’t defend some of Trump’s tweets and personal behavior, both of which step on his policy progress.

“But as a congressman,” Harris said, “my primary objective is to see that his policies are moved forward, and agenda moved forward that I have great agreement with.”