North Carolina’s most crowded congressional primary has been marked by personal attacks, calls to dismantle government, a detour into the “birther” controversy and one of the biggest self-funded campaigns in the country.
And that’s just the opening round.
With 10 Republicans on the ballot, Tuesday’s 9th District primary is almost certainly headed to a July 17 runoff.
“I would be shocked if we don’t,” says Michael Bitzer, a political scientist from Catawba College.
The candidates are vying for the seat being vacated by Republican U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick of Charlotte. The job is open for the first time in 18 years and only the fifth time in six decades.
In the heavily Republican district that includes most of Mecklenburg County and parts of Iredell and Union, the GOP nominee will enter the fall as the odds-on favorite against Democrat Jennifer Roberts and Libertarian Curtis Campbell.
Candidates have scrambled for attention in the crowded field. Lesser-known candidates struggled to get out their message. Campaign forums were exercises in brevity.
But in the media, especially on TV, the race has been lopsided.
‘The well’s near dry’
Only two House candidates in the nation have invested more of their own money than Robert Pittenger, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The former state senator has put in $1.1 million.
Through Friday, he’d spent nearly $500,000 on TV ads at three Charlotte stations alone. Rival Dan Barry, the mayor pro tem of Weddington, had spent $97,000 at those stations: Fox, WSOC and WAXN. No one else had spent more than $5,000.
Pittenger, a wealthy real estate investor, has gotten help from a super PAC.
Last week, Citizens for Conservative Leadership spent $13,000 on mailers against Jim Pendergraph, a Mecklenburg County commissioner and former sheriff. The group has three donors, the biggest of whom also gave to Pittenger.
Spokesman Michael Adams says the pro-Pittenger group was formed “to promote fiscal conservatism and good government, one member of Congress at a time.”
Pendergraph, under attack from Pittenger and the super PAC, has struggled to compete financially.
Through mid-April, he’d raised $173,000, less than three rivals. Last week he got $2,000 from Myrick’s campaign and loaned his own campaign $20,000.
“I hadn’t intended to do that,” he says. “I can’t respond to someone that has that much disposable income to spend attacking someone. We’re competing with nine other guys for the same money. The well’s near dry.”
Pittenger defends his ads, which have flooded mailboxes as well as airwaves.
“We’ve shared the truth and given a positive campaign of what we would do in contrast to our opponents,” he says.
The other eight
While Pittenger and Pendergraph have dominated headlines, other candidates reject the notion that it’s a two-man race.
“With some of the bigger-dollar guys pounding on each other, it’s opened the door to the rest of us,” says Mike Steinberg, a Matthews insurance agent.
Barry, an insurance executive, has spent more than anyone but Pittenger. On Thursday he gave his campaign an additional $50,000. “We are very confident about our position,” he says.
State Rep. Ric Killian joined the race late after returning from an Army Reserve tour in Afghanistan.
The West Point graduate has emphasized his defense credentials as well as his record as a budget-cutter.
Charlotte City Council member Andy Dulin has raised less than many rivals. He stresses his accessibility to voters and constituents, even handing out his cellphone number.
Financial adviser Jon Gauthier talked about his experience in Washington as a budget analyst and congressional staffer.
Ken Leonczyk, a Yale-educated minister and lawyer, touts experiences working as a Capitol Hill staffer and as an evangelist in Africa.
Alone among his rivals, Edwin Peacock III, a former Charlotte City Council member, casts himself as a moderate. In mailings and speeches, he touts his opposition to Tuesday’s referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
“Our path to victory could be a single issue,” he says. “We’re brilliant if this works. If not, we’ll know why.”
All for small government
Richard Lynch, a Belmont inventor, carries a tattered copy of the Constitution in his coat pocket.
Along with Steinberg, he’s been the most consistent advocate of returning to the rules laid out by the Founding Fathers. For both, that would mean dismantling entire federal departments and agencies.
All the candidates criticized federal regulations and promised to cut spending. But as the campaign progressed, more invoked the Constitution.
Pendergraph and Pittenger, for example, have said the federal government has no role in health care. Pendergraph says the campaign has caused him “to be more of a student of the Constitution. … I’ve learned things at these debates and forums that I had forgotten.”
“The tea party generally across the nation has kind of changed the political debate … toward more attention to what is said in the Constitution and how we can scale back government,” says Dennis Peterson, president of CAUTION, a Charlotte tea party group.
Last week Pendergraph stirred controversy when he said he has “reason to be suspicious” of President Barack Obama’s claim that he was born in the U.S. and thereby eligible for the presidency. His remarks on the “birther” issue prompted the Observer to retract its endorsement, the first time that has happened.
But Bitzer, the political scientist, says like the appeals to the Constitution, skepticism over the president’s birthplace could appeal to some primary voters.
“You don’t get moderate voters showing up,” he says. “You get the rank-and-file, true partisan activists on both sides that come out in a nomination battle.”
Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.