CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The rematch of an extremely close 2016 North Carolina congressional primary may hinge as much on which Republican candidate seems to more vigorously support President Donald Trump as who more successfully mobilizes Christian conservatives.
Only 134 votes separated U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger and the Rev. Mark Harris two years ago in the race for the Republican nomination in a freshly redrawn 9th District that grafted parts of affluent Charlotte and its suburbs onto poor, rural counties along the South Carolina border north to abut Fort Bragg
The top two candidates in Tuesday's three-man primary are once again touting their evangelical credentials — Harris was longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte and Pittenger once worked for Campus Crusade for Christ. The big difference this year is the White House. With Trump now in office, each has argued the other failed to support fully the president or his agenda.
The strategy could be precarious given that Trump won 54 percent of the vote in the Republican-leaning district in 2016 and the president's tepid job approval ratings. The winner among Pittenger, Harris and Fayetteville banker Clarence Goins will likely face a tough Democratic challenger. Iraq War veteran and Harvard graduate Dan McCready, the leading Democratic candidate, had $1.2 million in his campaign coffers in mid-April.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Harris has assailed Pittenger's vote for a March spending bill that ended a brief government shutdown, saying Pittenger isn't working to get spending under control and sending Trump a bill the president criticized for its largesse. The measure beefed up military spending as Trump sought, but domestic spending demanded by Democrats grew, and the nation's $21 trillion debt is expected to increase.
"Government continues to grow ... whether the D's are in charge of the R's are in charge," Harris said in an interview. "Congressman Pittenger has proven himself to be part of the establishment and that he's more interested in protecting the status quo."
Pittenger said his voting record since getting elected in 2012 reflects a commitment to fiscal responsibility. He said he backed the spending bill because it contained Trump's military request during a time America faces dangers with North Korea, Syria, Russia and terrorist organizations.
"If we don't preserve the country, nothing else matters," Pittenger said in an interview. "And there's a time and a place for everything."
Pittenger in turn criticizes Harris for not always having full-throated support for Trump. One of his campaign ads used a radio interview Harris gave in March 2016 to suggest his rival wanted to stop Trump from being the presidential nominee. Harris backed Ted Cruz during the North Carolina presidential primary that year and Pittenger supported Marco Rubio. Harris has pointed out that he spoke at Trump's October 2016 rally in Charlotte and at events across the country that year urging evangelicals to vote.
Trump hasn't endorsed a candidate. However, Pittenger did get to bask partially in the president's glow at an April political rally in Charlotte featuring Vice President Mike Pence, who highlighted the tax overhaul bill Pittenger voted for.
Rally attendee Kim Carlisle, a horticulturalist who calls herself a "tea party sentimentalist," said she voted for Pittenger in the last election but will be voting for Harris after listening to him.
"I was very impressed," Carlisle said. "Probably, the acid test for me is whether he would have voted for the spending bill. Mr. Harris said no. I listened."
But Tommy Johnson, a retired trucking company worker who also attended the rally, said he liked Pittenger's Christian beliefs and the tax law Pittenger supported because it will put more money in people's pockets "instead of taking it."
"I think he's taken a strong stand for working people," Johnson said.
Pittenger, a wealthy land developer, highlights his support from National Right to Life and past work with the late Rev. Billy Graham. During the holidays, he aired a television ad blasting protesters who "attack our faith and values."
Both Harris and Pittenger received endorsements from the influential Family Research Council's PAC.
Harris is a former Baptist State Convention president also endorsed by a fellow pastor, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Aligned with Pittenger's view, Harris said Trump has been "has been everything and then some, I think, that conservative and evangelicals hoped that he would be," especially on issues of abortion and religious liberty.
The potential race spoiler is Goins, a political newcomer who said he likes the president, too, and supports Christian values. But the race, he said, has turned into "which one wants to skip around with Donald Trump."
"We need to talk about the issues of Congress and what congressmen can do," Goins said during the candidates' lone television debate.