Robert Pittenger, buoyed by strong showings in the Charlotte suburbs, appears headed to a July 17 runoff against Jim Pendergraph in the 9th District congressional race.
Pittenger led the 10-man field with 34 percent of the vote to Pendergraph s 24 percent. But in North Carolina s most crowded congressional primary, both fell short of the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff.
Both lapped the field.
Former Charlotte City Council member Edwin Peacock was third with 12 percent, followed by state Rep. Ric Killian with 10 percent. None of the other six had more than 7 percent.
The winner will be the odds-on favorite in November against Democrat Jennifer Roberts and Libertarian Curtis Campbell in the heavily Republican district that includes most of Mecklenburg County and parts of Iredell and Union.
The candidates are running for the seat being vacated by Republican U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick of Charlotte. The seat is open for the first time in 18 years, and only the fifth time in six decades.
In leading, Pittenger rode strong performances in Iredell and Union counties. Pendergraph, a Mecklenburg County commissioner and former sheriff, held a narrow edge in his home county.
Only two House candidates in the country spent more of their own money than Pittenger. The Charlotte real estate investor and former state senator gave his campaign $1.1 million.
The money helped him bury his rivals in an avalanche of TV ads and mailings. Through Friday, he d spent nearly $500,000 on TV ads at three Charlotte stations alone. That was five times what his nearest rival, Union County businessman Dan Barry, spent at those stations.
Pendergraph, under attack from Pittenger and a Super PAC that supports him, 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. The well s near dry, he said last week.
Pittenger defended 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 said last week.
Pittenger, a social as well as fiscal conservative, won support from voters like Carter Brydon, a south Charlotte Republican. He said he liked Pittenger s big-time Christian values.
Though other candidates rejected the notion of a two-man race, few found any traction with voters.
Peacock, a former Charlotte City Council member, saw a path in describing himself as a pragmatic moderate. In mailings and speeches, he touted his opposition to Tuesday s referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Our path to victory could be a single issue, he said.
Like all the candidates, Pendergraph and Pittenger criticized federal regulations and promised to cut spending. Both said the federal government has no role in health care.
Last week Pendergraph stirred controversy when he said he had 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 for the first time.
It also appeared to cost him some votes.
I was going to go with Pendergraph (until) the birther stuff, said Richard Ellis, a south Charlotte Republican. That s kind of silly. I think it s an issue that s been put to rest.