North Carolina Republicans duel over who’s most loyal to Trump

U.S. Representatives Robert Pittenger, center, Dan Kildee, right, and Jared Huffman, left, talk to media people at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany.
U.S. Representatives Robert Pittenger, center, Dan Kildee, right, and Jared Huffman, left, talk to media people at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany. AP

It’s as though Tuesday’s Democratic surge didn’t happen —- in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, Republicans are slugging it out over who’s more loyal to President Donald Trump.

Incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger and second-time GOP challenger Mark Harris aren’t shying away from Trump in their Republican primary fight, despite an anti-Trump sentiment that fueled Democratic victories in gubernatorial and local contests Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey.

In fact, the president’s popularity among Republicans could be a deciding factor in a rematch of the 2016 primary that Pittenger won by 134 votes.

“The reality is I don’t know how you come out of the Republican primary not being a Trump guy with the way the Republican Party is today,” said Paul Shumaker, a Pittenger campaign consultant.

Trump won the 9th in 2016 with 54 percent of the vote. The district is a sprawling urban, suburban and rural mix that includes portions of Charlotte in southeast Mecklenburg County, most of Cumberland and Bladen counties and all of Union, Anson, Richmond, Scotland and Robeson counties.

Trump believes that Republicans all over the country, whether incumbents and challengers, should cling to him if they want to win.

The president tweeted Tuesday night that Republican Ed Gillespie lost the Virginia governor’s race to Democrat Ralph Northam because Gillespie “did not embrace me or what I stand for.”

Trump endorsed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and counselor to President George W. Bush, but the candidate appeared to keep the president at arm’s length during the gubernatorial campaign.

Pittenger is eagerly reminding voters that he embraces Trump. Last week, his campaign sent reporters a clip from a March 10, 2016 radio interview where Harris was asked whether he would support Trump if the billionaire businessman became the Republican presidential candidate..

"We’re looking at one entire generation of Supreme Court justices being nominated that will affect us. I am truly concerned, most of all, of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders having that ability to choose," Harris told Charlotte’s WBT radio. "I feel somewhat better about Donald Trump making those appointments, but I can’t tell you I feel great about that by any stretch of the imagination."

Pittenger’s team called this Exhibit A that Harris, the former pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, isn’t a true die-hard Trump supporter.

Harris began the 2016 presidential election cycle as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s North Carolina campaign chairman. He endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, after Huckabee dropped out of the race in February 2016. After Trump became the Republican nominee, Harris backed him.

Pittenger’s team unearthed the radio interview after Harris campaign consultant Andy Yates challenged Pittenger’s loyalty to Trump for having Republican strategist Karl Rove, a prominent Trump critic, headline a Charlotte fundraiser for the congressman last month.

"They’re the ones who raised the issue, not us. That’s one reason we provided (the audio)," Shumaker said. "If the Harris campaign wants to make Trump the issue in this race, then we’ve got very solid ground to stand on from Day One. Harris is the one that’s been inconsistent, a Johnny-Come-Lately."

Yates keeps trying to tie Pittenger to Rove and the Republican establishment while touting Harris’ political loyalty to Trump.

"Pastor Harris has been a strong supporter of President Trump from the moment he became the Republican presidential nominee and continues to be," Yates said. "Pittenger is with Trump out of convenience when he wants to be. I don’t know how anybody can claim to be for both Trump and Karl Rove. My question for Robert Pittenger is what are you going to do next? Bring Hillary Clinton in for a fundraiser?"

Pittenger has been one of Trump’s most vocal, consistent supporters in the House. An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight found that he’s voted with the president’s positions 95.7 percent of the time. That’s second only to Rep. Patrick McHenry’s 98 percent among North Carolina’s 10 House Republicans.

"I think people see I govern in a conservative way and a lot of people are scratching heads as to why Mark Harris is running," Pittenger said. "You’ve got a guy who seems, by every appearance, (to be) an opportunist."

The Harris camp says its candidate has been consistent, particularly about Trump’s desire to change the culture in Washington.

"Robert Pittenger is emblematic of the status quo, and until we can drain the swamp and change the type of leadership we have in Washington, nothing is going to change," Yates said.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas