Challenger Mark Harris upsets U.S. Rep. Pittenger of NC in GOP primary

U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger and challenger Mark Harris campaigned on Tuesday. The Republican primary was a rematch of candidates separated by just 134 votes in the 2016 primary. (David Foster/Charlotte Observer)
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger and challenger Mark Harris campaigned on Tuesday. The Republican primary was a rematch of candidates separated by just 134 votes in the 2016 primary. (David Foster/Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - Former Charlotte pastor Mark Harris defeated 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.

Pittenger becomes North Carolina's first member of Congress in memory to lose a primary to a non-incumbent opponent.

Meanwhile, Dan McCready easily beat Christian Cano in the Democratic primary.

Though analysts say the district leans Republican, it's expected to be one of the two most competitive districts in North Carolina this fall with the 13th District, where Democrat Kathy Manning won a primary to face GOP incumbent Ted Budd. Both races could help determine which party controls Congress.

In the 12th District, incumbent Rep. Alma Adams swept past three challengers in the Democratic primary. Republican Paul Wright, a perennial candidate from Wayne County, 230 miles east of the district, was leading two opponents in the GOP contest.

With 88 percent of the precincts counted, Harris had 48.5 percent to Pittenger's 46.2 percent. A third candidate, Clarence Goins of Cumberland County, had 5.3 percent.

Harris enjoyed leads in Union and Bladen counties that appeared to offset Pittenger's lead in Mecklenburg.

Pittenger, a former state senator first elected in 2012, was seeking a fourth term in the district that extends from southeast Charlotte east to Bladen County. In 2016 he defeated Harris by 134 votes, one of the country's closest congressional races.

Harris cast the primary as a battle for "the heart and soul of the Republican Party." He ran as much against the GOP-controlled Congress as against Pittenger. He said Pittenger was part of the Washington "swamp."

Pittenger had the backing of Washington's GOP leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who wrote a testimonial, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who visited for a fundraiser. Vice President Mike Pence shared a Charlotte stage with him.

Harris sided with mavericks, once suggesting he'd support a co-founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus for speaker.

In TV ads and on the stump, each candidate portrayed himself as President Donald Trump's more loyal supporter.

Pittenger spent more than $1 million through mid-April, according to federal finance reports. Harris spent nearly $500,000. Without a competitive primary, McCready has a war chest that exceeded Pittenger's by $1 million.

He's one of nine Democratic challengers with a six-figure fundraising advantage over a GOP incumbent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Only one Democratic challenger in the country had more cash on hand at the end of the first quarter.

Democrats compare McCready, a Marine combat veteran, to Conor Lamb, the Democrat who won a special election this year in a Pennsylvania district that had gone for Trump by 20 points. McCready has attempted to steer toward the middle of the road, saying he would not support Nancy Pelosi for Democratic leader.

Cano, who supports presidential impeachment, tried to push McCready from the left.

Joining the 9th District in the spotlight is North Carolina's 13th, which stretches from Mooresville to Greensboro.

Like McCready, Manning has outraised Budd, and with $1 million on hand through mid-April, had almost twice as much cash on hand. The conservative Club for Growth already has spent over $128,000 on Budd's behalf.

This week the Washington Post portrayed Pittenger and Budd as Republicans who will have to fight hard to keep their seats in November.