Pittenger wins tight race in Republican 9th congressional district race

Pittenger wins tight race in Republican 9th congressional district race

RALEIGH, NC (Tim Funk/The Charlotte Observer) - U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger won a razor-thin victory Tuesday night in the race for the Republican nomination in North Carolina's 9th congressional race.

According to unofficial but final results, Pittenger received 34.94 percent of the vote, slightly ahead of the Rev. Mark Harris, who had 34.43 percent.

Another challenger, former Union County commissioner Todd Johnson, has 30.62 percent.

The margin was victory: 135 votes.

Under state law, Harris could be entitled to a recount.

Elsewhere in the district, Johnson was the unofficial winner in five of the district's eight counties, including Union County. Pittenger was leading in Mecklenburg County, but last in all of the other counties. Harris was ahead in two counties: Robeson and Cumberland.

Going into Tuesday, all three campaigns were expecting a low turnout. And, unlike in most years, there will be no runoff between the top two voter getters if nobody gets 40 percent.

Whoever has the most votes when they're all counted will become the GOP nominee. He will face Democratic newcomer Christian Cano in November.

Democrats make up 45 percent of the voters in the new 9th district, up from the 32 percent in the old district boundaries where Pittenger was elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2014.

Pittenger spent most of Tuesday greeting voters at a polling place – Tirzah Presbyterian Church – south of Waxhaw in Union County.

Harris visited four polling places – schools in Monroe, Indian Trail, Matthews and Charlotte.

And Johnson concentrated on the western part of Union County, campaigning at polling places in Waxhaw and Indian Trail.

Union County's population makes up the biggest slice of the new 9th district – 27 percent, just ahead of Mecklenburg County's 25 percent. The campaigns said Tuesday that they also expected the great majority of the actual votes to come from those two counties.

GOP voters in the 9th were ultimately asked to decide whether having experience working in Washington was a plus or a minus.

Pittenger, who was running for a third term, stressed his membership on the key House Financial Services Committee, which oversees banks, and his leadership role on a congressional task force focused on fighting terrorism.

That familiarity with Washington was persuasive for retirees Robert and Diane Wagstaff. The Charlotte couple cast their ballots for Pittenger.

"He's got time in office, a little seniority – and I like the guy," said Robert Wagstaff, a former economist and nuclear engineer.

In their bid to unseat Pittenger, challengers Harris and Johnson tried to tap into Republican anger at Washington. They said the incumbent congressman was part of a GOP establishment that has not done enough to cut spending, repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood.

Dave Giles, a Charlotte manufacturing rep, explained his vote for Harris this way: "I'm just tired of Pittenger. I think we need a change."

Pittenger faced challenges, but also had advantages, in his bid for a third term.

A one-time official in Campus Crusade for Christ, Pittenger had to compete this year for the support of conservative Christians, voters he had cultivated – and counted on – during his political career.

Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charlotte, had his own claims to that constituency, and campaigned in the district with former Republican presidential candidate – and onetime Southern Baptist minister – Mike Huckabee.

Johnson also reached out to evangelical voters, pointing out that he braved a threatened lawsuit from a secular group by praying to Jesus at the start of county commission meetings.

Because the new 9th district has lines that are dramatically different from those of Pittenger's former district, he had to try to introduce himself to voters in the eastern half of Union County and in six additional counties.

Also hovering over Pittenger's campaign was a continuing FBI-IRS investigation of his former real estate company. In the final weeks of the campaign, both Harris and Johnson sought to raise character issues about Pittenger by reminding voters of the probe.

Pittenger did have one big advantage: He out-raised his rivals by more than 5-1, thanks in large part to contributions from a long list of corporate PACs. That enabled him to spend heavy on broadcast and cable TV ads, which were often shown during commercial breaks in news programs.

In one, he accused Harris of backing amnesty for immigrants here illegally and of not supporting increases in military spending.

GOP voters in the district were also bombarded with automated phone calls – also called "robocalls" – with familar voices urging them how to vote.

Harris recruited Myrick, who'd had the 9th district seat for 18 years, to record one – and to appear with him at a fundraiser.

Promoting Pittenger over the phone: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Debbie Fisher, a retired Charlotte educator, voted for Harris, saying he ran "the least negative campaign, the least when it came to mud-slinging."

And Charlotte retiree Fred Brown, a former colonel, said he went with Johnson partly because "I think he's an honest, forthright, get-it-done kind of person.

But some voters, including Brown, said they were also voting against Pittenger, who has been dogged over the years by questions about his ethics. While in the legislature, some critics said he voted for a land deal that would benefit him. And a federal investigation of Pittenger's former real estate company is entering its second year without resolution.

"With Pittenger, I just have unease about some of these real estate transactions," said Brown.

But Pittenger got the vote of Joe Padilla, a local lobbyist for REBIC – Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition – who said he knows Pittenger.

"I think he's done a good job. And unless there's a good reason to (unseat) someone, I'm for keeping them," said Padilla. "He has supported conservative principles."

Plus, Padilla said, Pittenger is in the real estate business himself, "so he understands the issues of our industry."