CHARLOTTE, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - When Vice President Mike Pence comes to Charlotte Friday to tout the administration's tax cuts, he'll share the Park Expo stage with U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger.
He'll be the latest big-name Republican to help the 9th District lawmaker, who finds himself facing two tough re-election battles.
Though Pence isn't coming specifically for Pittenger's campaign, he'll benefit the candidate by sharing not only a media spotlight but the implicit blessing of President Donald Trump's administration.
The GOP VIP parade has included House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who was in town last week for a Pittenger fundraiser, Housing Secretary Ben Carson, who joined the congressman in Fayetteville and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, scheduled to visit next month. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Intelligence committee chair Devin Nunes have written testimonials on Pittenger's behalf.
McCarthy and Scalise are expected to be candidates to fill the job of retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan.
All the support underscores the stakes this election for Pittenger and for national Republicans.
"Any time you see those high-profile figures in the state that's a sign that the congressman is taking his races seriously," says Nathan Gonzalez, editor of the Washington-based Inside Elections. "Any Republican who isn't . . . does so at their own peril."
Pittenger's main challenger in the May 8 GOP primary is Mark Harris, a former Charlotte pastor who lost to Pittenger by just 134 votes in the 2016 primary. Though polls give Pittenger the edge, turnout is expected to be a big factor.
The winner is expected to meet Democrat Dan McCready in November. McCready, who faces fellow Charlotte Democrat Christian Cano in the Democratic primary, has drawn comparisons to Conor Lamb, the Pennsylvania Democrat who won a special election in a district Trump carried by 20 points in 2016.
Like Lamb, McCready is a former Marine. Trump carried the 9th District by 12 points.
McCready's first quarter fundraising is unlikely to dampen Democrats' enthusiasm.
He raised $614,000, bringing his total take to $1.84 million. By comparison, Pittenger raised $457,000 in the quarter and $1.4 million for the campaign. Numbers for Harris and Cano were not immediately available.
McCready's strength as well as re-energized Democratic voters have led analysts such as those at the Cook Political Report to shift the 9th from "likely" Republican to "lean" Republican. On Friday Politico reported that Republicans are working to reinforce candidates such as Pittenger in supposedly safe seats.
Politico quoted GOP pollster John McLaughlin who said a lack of enthusiasm could lead many Trump voters to sit out the midterms, endangering incumbents in conservative areas.
That's one reason Pittenger has tied himself closely to the president, highlighting his name and picture in TV ads and mailers and embracing presidential policies.
Jason Williams, Harris' campaign manager, says the parade of Washington visitors underscores Pittenger's ties less to the president than to the congressional establishment. Harris called the signing of a 1.3 trillion spending bill last month "a sad day for our nation." Trump signed the bill but later called it "ridiculous."
"When they come in it's either because Robert Pittenger is a part of crafting that legislation or they're coming down because they can count on him as a rubber stamp for advancing their agenda," Williams says. "The way we see it, it just reinforces our narrative that Robert has sold the vote of the 9th District out to lobbyists and special interests and has given that over to leadership in Congress."
Pittenger strategist Paul Shumaker calls the remarks "another classic example of Mark Harris trying to have it both ways."
"I see that as nothing but a blatant frontal assault on this president and the Republicans in Congress trying to help the president enact his agenda," Shumaker says.
Meanwhile Republican leaders continue to help the 9th District incumbent.
Congressional leaders have poured at least $67,500 into his campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
David Wasserman, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, says the high-profile assistance helps both the candidate and, at least in some cases, those who give it.