Mark Harris has become a familiar name on the Republican ballot in North Carolina. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014, losing to Thom Tillis. Two years ago, he lost to Robert Pittenger in the primary race for the 9th district in Congress by just 134 votes.
This year, Harris is back for another shot at Pittenger. Both say the circumstances are different and in their favor for next week’s primary.
Circumstances will also be different for the general election because this year the Republican nominee is expected to have a stronger Democratic challenger.
Harris’s resume is also a little different this time around. He’s now the former senior pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church. He stepped down last year to focus on campaigning full-time.
A recent campaign event had the feeling of a revival. Harris spoke under a large tent on a stormy evening in Union County farm country. He railed against Washington and defeating the establishment.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have the White House, we have the U.S. House, we have the U.S. Senate, and I’m saying to you tonight the time for excuses has come to an end,” Harris said, to applause. “I think that God’s doing something right now in our land. I can’t explain it. I can’t even tell you the ins and outs of it…”
Harris notes there are 40 Republican members of Congress not running for re-election. Perhaps, he said, their replacements will form a strong conservative freshman class.
“And move our true conservative agenda forward,” he said. “That’s what I’m praying for. That’s the vision God has laid on my heart.”
As head of the state Baptist Convention, Harris was a leader in the passage of Amendment One in 2012 to ban same-sex marriage. Now, his conservative agenda includes ending omnibus bills – legislation that packages spending for a wide range of things. He said he would have voted against the omnibus bill signed by President Trump in March – and supported by Pittenger.
For one, Harris said it should have included money for a border wall. Whatever the case, he said a major spending program should not be crammed together; they need straight up and down votes.
“I think the omnibus bills are nothing but a way that the swamp protects the swamp and it's not the way Washington should work,” he told WFAE. “It's not the way to run any business, and it's not the way to run our household.”
Robert Pittenger drew a clear line between himself and his challenger on this point.
“Perhaps that’s the difference between me and Mr. Harris is you’ve got to go there to govern,” Pittenger said. “We’ve got people from the Republican conference from the Northeast, they’ve got maybe more unions, more urban, parts are from more rural areas with more poverty. So you have to find the ability to understand everybody else’s perspective.”
Take immigration. Pittenger said legislation to give Dreamers a path to citizenship fell through because of an unwillingness by Democrats to group broader immigration policy with the bill.
“We have a broad issue,” he said. “Let’s deal with the whole issue.”
Specifically, border security.
“We have a porous border,” Pittenger said. “This is an immigration issue, this is a drug issue, this is a security issue.”
Pittenger pointed to the Central American gang MS-13. He blamed its presence in the U.S. in part on poor border security and sanctuary cities policies that protect immigrants who came here illegally.
Both Pittenger and Harris are strong supporters of gun rights.
Pittenger announced the NRA’s endorsement of him when some politicians were distancing themselves from the group in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. He made the announcement two days before nationwide student rallies for stronger gun control laws organized in response to Parkland.
“I think what is unfortunate is after one of these horrific tragedies that there’s the politicization of it that people jump on the gun thing, like ban all guns,” Pittenger said. ”It’s really unfortunate that people keep tooting the same horn.”
While federal legislation has been introduced since Parkland to ban assault weapons, there hasn’t been legislation introduced to ban all guns.
Harris said more attention should be given to the failures of law enforcement to act on numerous warning signs about the shooter.
Both talk glowingly about President Trump.
“I think he has fulfilled so much and even then some of what conservatives said they wanted to see,” Harris said. “I wish he didn't tweet quite as much as he tweets and I sometimes feel like he may step on his own issues with his tweets, but I think as far as his policies go, I think as far as his agenda goes, I'm in complete agreement with the leadership that he's providing.”
Pittenger praises President Trump’s tax cuts, and “regulatory relief.” He refers to Trump as a diamond “with a lot of rough edges.”
“But he is a diamond,” Pittenger said. “He’s not a cubic zirconia. Listen, he’s a different dude, but I'm gonna let Trump be Trump. I respect the man for what he’s accomplishing.”
“I think certainly on the primary it almost feels like who can embrace Donald Trump the most,” said Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer. “The question is going to be after the primary election if Trump’s approval rating is still in the low-40s, is that bear hug going to hold water going into November?”
President Trump carried the district, which stretches from South Charlotte to Fayetteville, and Pittenger won the general election two years ago by 16 points.
But this year, the Democratic Party has the candidate who has raised the most money of all 9th district candidates, Republican or Democrat. Charlotte businessman Dan McCready has raised $1.9 million so far, according to the campaign finance tracking site opensecrets.org.
And as of April 18, McCready had more than double the cash on hand – nearly $700 thousand – than Pittenger and Harris combined.
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