RALEIGH, N.C. – Three-term incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina narrowly lost Tuesday to a Southern Baptist pastor in a GOP primary rematch focused on their evangelical Christian credentials and loyalty to President Donald Trump.
Two years ago, the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte's First Baptist Church lost by just 134 votes to Pittenger, a wealthy land developer. This time, Harris came out on top by a slightly wider margin, and Clarence Goins of Fayetteville finished third.
Pittenger, the first incumbent congressman to lose this year, told supporters he called Harris and conceded.
Harris, a former president of the Baptist State Convention in North Carolina, now must pivot toward a general election campaign against Iraq War veteran and Harvard graduate Dan McCready, who won Tuesday's Democratic nomination.
The focus on Trump could be precarious given the president's tepid approval ratings since winning 54 percent of the vote in the Republican-leaning district in 2016.
McCready had $1.2 million in unspent campaign donations in mid-April and was already eyeing the fall vote in the 9th District, which fuses affluent parts of Charlotte and its suburbs with poor, rural counties along the South Carolina border to the edge of Fort Bragg.
Pittenger also touted his evangelical credentials: He once worked for Campus Crusade for Christ and talked fondly about connections to the Rev. Billy Graham and his son, the Rev. Franklin Graham.
But Harris assailed Pittenger's vote for a March spending bill that ended a brief government shutdown, saying Pittenger wasn't working to get spending under control and sent Trump a bill the president criticized for its largesse. The measure beefed up military spending as Trump sought, but domestic spending demanded by Democrats grew, and the nation's $21 trillion debt is expected to increase.
Pittenger said his voting record since getting elected in 2012 reflects a commitment to fiscal responsibility. He said he backed the spending bill because it contained Trump's military request as America faces dangers around the world.
Pittenger tried to undermine Harris' full-throated support for Trump. One Pittenger campaign ad used a radio interview from March 2016, when Harris was supporting Ted Cruz in the North Carolina presidential primary, to suggest his rival wanted to stop Trump from being the presidential nominee. At the time, Pittenger was supporting Marco Rubio.
Trump didn't endorse either candidate, but Pittenger got to bask in something like his glow when Vice President Mike Pence came to an April campaign rally.
On Tuesday, Pittenger got the vote of Joe Jones, a 74-year-old management consultant, who said he believes the congressman would more regularly support Trump.
"I like Trump, so I don't want to take an arrow out of Trump's quiver, so to speak, by electing Harris," Jones said.
But Harris was the candidate of Ancil Overbey, the 62-year-old CEO of a Gaston County crisis pregnancy center, who steered voters to Harris outside a polling station.
"I think he'll be a fiscal conservative," Overbey said. "I think he's concerned with our national debt. I know he's pro-life. I know he's pro-family."
Associated Press writer Tom Foreman Jr. in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.