Congressman Robert Pittenger couldn’t go 30 seconds without mentioning President Donald Trump.
At a church 5K run and a local Republican convention, an early voting station and a panel discussion hosted by a pro-Trump group, the GOP congressman in the midst of a primary battle typically waited between five and 30 seconds before invoking the president as he campaigned last weekend—and often, the favorable comparisons to iconic conservative President Ronald Reagan weren’t far behind.
It was a constant reminder of the lengths Republican candidates are going to embrace Trump this primary season, from here in Pittenger’s district to Senate races in West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana, all places where primary Election Day comes May 8. It’s more evidence of the president’s grip on the GOP base—and of the perils facing any Republican candidate in a conservative area who is perceived as insufficiently supportive of Trump.
“You can’t be against the president and make it work,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, who hails from another conservative North Carolina district and is familiar with the dynamics in Pittenger's Ninth District stretching from suburban Charlotte east to the Fayetteville area. “Yet at the same time, you have to be true to who you are and hopefully make a compelling case on how you’re going to be representative of the people.”
In Pittenger’s primary, there is no doubt that the animating issue of the campaign is support for Trump—and he and his most prominent opponent, the deeply conservative Mark Harris, are taking increasingly extreme measures to prove their Trumpian bona fides.
They have fought over the timing of their Trump endorsements in 2016 (a matter of weeks, according to PolitiFact), featured Trump in their campaign materials, run ads questioning the other’s support for Trump, in Pittenger’s case—or Trump’s support for Pittenger, in Harris’s case—and dropped the president’s name at every opportunity.
As GOP activists arrived at their tables for a lunchtime gathering of the Ninth District GOP convention here on Saturday about an hour outside of Charlotte, they found cards at their places, informing them that “just like he did on the campaign trail in 2016, Mark Harris will stand with President Donald Trump” on issues such as "build the wall" and "repeal Obamacare."
And as they pulled back their chairs, they were greeted by an image of Trump— posing on another, larger placard, next to Pittenger. “Congressman Pittenger: Working with President Trump to deliver conservative results for the 9th District!” read the missive.
“You get endeared to Reagan because he’s a national treasure, we had him longer,” Pittenger said when asked about his favorite president. But, he added, “Frankly, Donald Trump has already begun endearing himself to people because he is so principled.”
As he offered those reflections, Pittenger stood near a table stocked with his campaign literature, including a flier that touted his “pro-Trump voting record.” The original number, a 95.7 percent rating, had been crossed out by hand, and now read, in large pink penmanship, “97 percent.”
It’s not that support for Trump is the only issue Pittenger and Harris discuss.
Harris, a charismatic, socially conservative southern pastor who nearly defeated Pittenger in their 2016 primary contest, spent Sunday morning preaching at a Baptist church, railing against abortion and stressing his belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman, Supreme Court ruling defending same-sex marriage aside.
And Pittenger, who this cycle appears to have a bigger edge over Harris and certainly has a substantial fundraising advantage (though he trails likely Democratic nominee Dan McCready in fundraising), talks about the tax bill, foreign policy and his own opposition to abortion. (Banker Clarence Goins is also running, though he is lesser known.)
But frequently, especially for Pittenger, discussion of policy comes right back to Trump—despite the fact that the primary winner will face a general election landscape that is expected to be competitive, driven in part by suburban dissatisfaction with the president even in a district he won by nearly 12 percentage points.
“President Trump, like Ronald Reagan, understands what it means to empower the American people,” Pittenger declared Friday during a panel discussion about the tax law hosted by America First Policies, a pro-Trump group.
Not everyone is wowed by Pittenger’s effusive Trump talk.
“Robert and I, probably as members in the same delegation, don’t necessarily share meals together as much,” Meadows said. “Obviously he’s part of our North Carolina delegation, but at the same time, I haven’t really had any discussions with him about his support for the president. I’ve seen the pictures, but that’s about it.”
Meadows, who insisted that he is not endorsing in the primary—it’s “up to the people of the Ninth Congressional District to decide who’s going to best represent their values”— also said that “there’s no doubt, on the things I’ve talked with Mark Harris about, that he is certainly going to support the president. I have the privilege of talking to the president multiple times a week, and it’s all about making sure we can deliver on behalf of the American people.”
And while Pittenger tweeted that “Mike Pence will be joining me in Charlotte for a panel discussion on the positive impacts of the #TaxCutsandJobsAct” and offered up ticket information through his congressional Twitter account, a spokeswoman for America First Policies stressed that the vice president’s appearance was not an endorsement, and was intended to be a policy-focused event.
In fact, even though Pittenger spoke on a panel ahead of Pence’s address, the vice president first mentioned a different congressman, who did not speak at the roundtable, as he took the stage. He also thanked the state’s lieutenant governor, the North Carolina senators and noted a pastor detained in Turkey. Only then did he continue, “Let me also thank Congressman Robert Pittenger, more than two dozen members of the North Carolina General Assembly with us here today.”
Still, later in the speech, Pence offered more robust praise of Pittenger: “Congressman Pittenger has stood with us to rebuild our military, protect our borders, roll back red tape and to cut your taxes, and he has our thanks.”
Several days later, the clip showed up in a Pittenger fundraising appeal.
For some activists, Pittenger has already demonstrated that he is solidly in the president’s corner—and that’s a key part of what they’re looking for in their elected officials.
“Robert has proved himself to be supportive of the president,” said Katherine Feldmann, the treasurer of Sweet Union Republican Women. She described him as a “solid citizen” and “a Christian” whose record on fighting abortion and backing veterans she said she admired in an interview ahead of speeches at the Ninth District convention.
After several local officials offered their updates, Pittenger took the stage.
And like clockwork, 15 seconds in, he turned to the subject of Trump, this time in the context of his dealings with North Korea.
“Are you not,” Pittenger said, “especially grateful and thankful for this president?”
Jim Morrill of the Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.