Previewing The Primary Fight For North Carolina's 9th Congressional District

Jun 2, 2016


North Carolina holds a second primary on June 7.

Next Tuesday, North Carolina voters will go to the polls to vote in a primary again.

It’s a special primary election for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And we’re going to examine the races for two seats in particular. Friday, we’ll preview the fight for the 12th Congressional District, which is now completely inside Mecklenburg County.

Here's a look at the other district which includes part of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina's 9th Congressional district.  

WFAE’s Tom Bullock joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry.

MT: Before we get into the candidates themselves, let’s remind everyone why this special primary is happening at all.

TB: In February, a panel of federal judges ruled that two of North Carolina’s congressional districts were illegal racial gerrymanders. And they ordered those two districts be redrawn. The General Assembly complied with that order but rather than just change those two districts, they redrew the whole lot.

Some significantly. Take the 9th Congressional District. It used to encompass parts of Union, most of Mecklenburg and a good chunk of Iredell counties. Now the 9th is made up of the southeastern section of Mecklenburg county all of Union and continues east to Fayetteville.

MT: So that’s the district, who are the candidates?

TB: There will be no congressional primary for Democrats in that district – that’s because just one Democrat is running for the seat, businessman Christian Cano. So he will appear on the November ballot.

It’s a different story for Republicans. The new 9th brought new competition for incumbent Robert Pittenger who is running for re-election. Then there’s businessman and former Union County Commissioner Todd Johnson. He’s the relatively unknown candidate in this race. Most of his campaign has been on social media sites. Johnson lists his top issues as fighting terrorism, securing the border and a constitutional amendment banning all abortions.

And there’s Mark Harris, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Uptown. He ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2014, losing that primary to Thom Tillis.

MT: And the race between Pittenger and Harris has gone very negative.

TB: It has and the attack ads by both candidates share a strategy that’s easy to spot. Here’s an attack ad by the Harris Campaign.

And here’s one from the Pittenger Campaign.

And that, in a nutshell is both candidate’s strategy: try to tie their main opponent to President Barack Obama. Which is a stretch for both Republicans.

MT: How so?

TB: Let’s just say in reality, neither Republican is a big supporter of President Obama’s policies.

And on the other points, the truth is much more nuanced than the attack ads portray.

Pittenger did vote for the omnibus federal budget which included funding for Obamacare, Planned Parenthood and funding for President Obama’s plan to defer deportations for some in the country illegally. But that was in the budget, passed at the last minute that avoided a government shutdown and included funding for U.S. troops both at home and abroad.

Harris has served in the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention. And that group has called on politicians to create a path towards citizenship after securing the borders. Which is not as clear cut as saying Harris supports amnesty for illegals.

MT: So is there a favorite in this race?

TB: Usually it’s very hard to unseat an incumbent. So you would think Congressman Pittenger has this in the bag. But this is no ordinary year.

First, this is a new district, with new boundaries. All three men need to introduce themselves to new voters. Pittenger has raised more money and run more ads. So on this we have to say advantage Pittenger.

But Pittenger is campaigning at a time when the FBI and IRS are examining if he improperly transferred money to his 2012 campaign from the real estate firm run by his wife. So advantage Harris on this point.

And finally, there’s the always important issue of turnout. Michel Dickerson, director of the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections is hoping to see turnout around 5 percent. That’s really low. Normall, if a candidate gets less than 40 percent of the vote there would be a runoff between the top two candidates. But, this year, in order to pay for this special election, the state has done away with runoff elections. So with a potentially low turnout, and a lower bar to meet in order to get the nomination, this race just may come down to who gets that extra bus load of supporters to the polls.