ROCKINGHAM — With only a week to go before the Republican congressional primary, one candidate looking to make his way to Washington greeted voters throughout the district during a day of campaigning.
The Rev. Mark Harris stood outside the Richmond County Cooperative Extension Office — where early voting started late last week — speaking with supporters Tuesday afternoon.
Before praying with the small group in the parking lot, Harris encouraged them to reach out to people they know — who may not be regular voters — to make it out to the polls for the late primary.
“We have a chance to let them know there’s something different about this election,” he said.
Harris was also urging them to re-elect Supreme Court Associate Justice Bob Edmunds, who is defending his seat on the bench from challengers Michael Morgan, Daniel Robertson and Sabra Jean Faires.
A FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT
Harris is one of two candidates vying to unseat the incumbent for the 9th Congressional District, Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-Charlotte. The other is Todd Johnson, a former Union County commissioner and president of a regional insurance agency with offices throughout the district, including Rockingham, Wadesboro and Laurinburg.
The senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, Harris decided to “get involved (in politics) at a deeper level” following the 2012 referendum on Amendment One, supporting the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.
He said there were “a lot of people that felt there was a vacuum in leadership.”
Harris first tried running for Senate, but lost in the primary to former N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, who went on to defeat incumbent Kay Hagan.
Johnson’s decision to enter the race came about similarly.
“Nationwide, many citizens are simply frustrated with Washington and politics in general,” he told the Daily Journal in an email on Tuesday. “The general consensus is that our elected officials are out of touch and quite frankly, I couldn’t agree more. As a father of two young children and a small business owner, I simply could not sit on the sideline any longer and watch our beloved America continue down the path of destruction.”
Both challengers said the redrawing of the districts by state legislators in February also played a part in their candidacy.
Pittenger currently represents the 9th District, covering the western edge of Union County and parts of Mecklenburg and Iredell counties. If the redrawing stands, it would consist of all of Union, Anson, Richmond, Scotland and Robeson counties and the southeast region of Mecklenburg, southern half of Cumberland and the western half of Bladen counties.
A federal court has yet to make a ruling.
When the maps were first announced, Pittenger told the Daily Journal that he was looking forward to representing a new area.
“A lot of folks are struggling and I want to be there to represent their needs and to represent their interests to the best of my ability,” he said. “I’ll enjoy getting to know the folks back east the same as when I ran for lieutenant governor.”
With the demographic of the constituents being more suburban and rural than metropolitan, Johnson and Harris both said they think they could better represent the people in the district.
Johnson listed national security, the economy and status-quo officials as his three top issues.
Regarding the latter, he said he believes people are “simply fed up” with politicians saying one thing and doing another.
“Call me old fashioned, but I believe that our word should be sacred,” he said. “You must always tell the truth and must always keep your word.”
While Johnson never called out Pittenger specifically, Harris has criticized the congressman for his support of the omnibus budget bill, which failed to remove federal funding for Planned Parenthood. The bill also included billions in funding for the military.
Harris’ rebuke of the spending bill — saying he is “not going to allow the handcuffing of funding for Planned Parenthood with the defense budget” — led to the Pittenger campaign producing an ad saying the pastor doesn’t support the military.
The pastor called the ad the “most atrocious thing I’ve ever seen.”
Although Harris told supporters that Pittenger’s campaign was using the congressman’s quote as a source, the Charlotte Observer article referenced has no direct quotes from the incumbent.
In addition to policy differences, Harris also cited concern over a pending FBI investigation involving Pittenger, saying the seat “could easily be handed over to a Democrat” if the congressman were to be indicted before the election.
“Nothing I have seen even suggests criminal conduct by Congressman Pittenger or his former company,” reads a statement from Pittenger attorney Ken Bell. “We continue to provide federal investigators all the information they need to come to the same conclusion. While investigations understandably take time, I hope that federal authorities will act quickly and publicly to absolve Congressman Pittenger.”
Sam Standridge was one of the Harris supporters outside the polling place on Tuesday. Like Harris and Johnson, he said the country needs something different.
“The things they’re doing right now aren’t working,” he said of Congress. “I’m ready for a different direction.”
If it was up to him, Standridge said he would “get rid of all them.”
Just before 4 p.m., only 83 people had cast ballots during the early voting period, which runs through Saturday at 1 p.m.
According to figures provided by the Richmond County Board of Elections earlier this year, there are 5,311 registered Republicans in the county.
The winner in next Tuesday’s election will face Democrat Christian Cano in November.
Reach William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_toler.