Politics & Government

N. Carolina GOP primary may be the country's nastiest

Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina in his office in Washington D.C.
Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina in his office in Washington D.C. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Rep. Patrick McHenry says the candidates who want his seat in Congress don't want to talk about his voting record.

Unfortunately for the North Carolina Republican, there's plenty of other material for them to work with.

The contest has gotten so ugly that McHenry's GOP opponent has accused McHenry of putting American lives at risk after he returned from Baghdad — perhaps a new height in primary election squabbling.

"It's getting a little testy out there," said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. "Campaigns are modern-day warfare, so you are going to pull out whatever ammunition that you can to attack an incumbent."

McHenry enters the state's primary on May 6 trying to shake off recent headlines from his first trip to Iraq, during which the two-term lawmaker referred to a man protecting a U.S. Embassy gym as a "two-bit security guard" and then filmed himself talking about the buildings hit by enemy fire.

His Republican opponent, Lance Sigmon of Newton, N.C., is airing a TV ad that essentially accuses McHenry of endangering Americans by giving away battle damage details. McHenry threatened to sue Sigmon if he didn't take the ad down, but Sigmon refused.

Intra-party slugfests aren't new to McHenry. That's how he got to Congress. He beat a county sheriff in a hotly contested primary runoff four years ago to replace retiring Rep. Cass Ballenger, and there's still a faction of disgruntled Republicans in his district who haven't forgiven him for it.

Their wounds were reopened last year when a young campaign aide whom McHenry housed during his first campaign faced voter fraud charges for casting a ballot in the 10th District without proper residency.

Some of the folks who disapproved of McHenry's campaign tactics have flocked to support Sigmon.

A military attorney in the Air Force from 1988-2005, Sigmon acknowledged that he and McHenry probably agree on most policy matters. But he claims that McHenry has shown he's not suitable to hold public office.

"I don't know if he doesn't have the seasoning or life experiences to understand what things he should or shouldn't be doing," Sigmon said of McHenry, who at 32 is the youngest member of Congress. "The other thing is he's very contentious. I have differences with the other party as well, but I'm mature enough to understand that the system is set up so there has to be compromise."

McHenry said he's stayed true to his core beliefs.

"There are a lot of politicians who will go along to get along, and I'm not one of them," McHenry said. "I'm up here to make a change in Washington, not to accept its broken ways."

That makes him controversial in the halls of Congress as well.

In Washington, a role he's taken in the Democratic-controlled Congress is to obstruct the "liberal" agenda in ways that don't endear him to everyone. He's the guy the Republican Party can count on to stonewall a piece of legislation for hours or days with myriad parliamentary questions.

Fellow lawmakers tried to teach him a lesson last year when they stripped federal funds he'd proposed for one of his district's beloved programs, the "Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree." He was the only lawmaker to have his earmark spiked from the appropriations bill.

"McHenry likes controversy. That's not what they (his constituents) are used to," said Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. "McHenry has left himself open because of his style."

McHenry said that his voting record is untouchable and that he's helped the district in other ways by trying to get a veterans clinic open in Hickory, N.C., and establishing better access to educational programs.

"I've voted in a very consistent and conservative way since I've been in Washington," McHenry said, noting that he's parted ways with the Bush administration on certain immigration and trade matters. "I said in my first campaign that I would be outspoken on core conservative issues that are important to my district, and I have and I will continue to."

If McHenry survives the primary, he'll face the winner of the Democratic contest, either retired businessman and engineer Steve Ivester or attorney Daniel Johnson, both of Hickory, in November.

Johnson has gotten the most attention. The son of a local minister, he's considered a local hero for trying to save a fellow sailor's life and losing his own legs in the process during a Navy accident.

Ivester and Johnson acknowledge that the district has consistently voted Republican, but they say that McHenry is polarizing enough to push people to the other side of the ticket come fall.

Arrington said he thinks this would be a good year for a veteran to get elected to office; all three challengers have served in the military and McHenry hasn't. But he said each has a high hurdle to overcome — raising enough money to beat an incumbent, even a controversial one. So far, McHenry has outraised and outspent all of them.

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