Will rightward moves by GOP prove tricky or do the trick in North Carolina?

March 12

Rep. Robert Pittenger, who represents North Carolina’s 9th District in the U.S. House, has always seemed like a nice guy in our interactions, whether I was asking a question as a journalist or as one of his constituents. But his recent fund-raising letter was not very nice to the president of the United States.

In an envelope that stated “no less than Western civilization hangs in the balance,” the letter from Pittenger, the Chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism, said, “Barack Obama is Enemy Number One.” It also cited the influence of the president’s “Islamo-Communist upbringing.”

Of course, fund-raising appeals usually try to stir up the base — those who would open their pockets — with some hyperbole. But when someone familiar with actual domestic and foreign threats, a congressman who regularly emphasizes a bipartisan path, goes for the jugular, it gets attention. Blogger Andrew Sullivan and the editorial board of The Charlotte Observer are among those who have chided Pittenger.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is backing tea party-backed candidate in N.C. Senate primary. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) headlined a fund raiser for a tea party-backed candidate in N.C. Senate primary. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

In the 9th District, which has more than its share of upscale malls, the conservatism usually has less red meat than some of the gourmet food shops. But Pittenger, the freshman congressman who won the seat when Republican Sue Myrick retired, is getting a challenge from the right in his re-election bid. That would be tea party conservative Michael Steinberg, who says on his Web site that the fight is between the “ruling political elite” versus “the rest of us.” The charges in Pittenger’s letter probably won’t hurt in a district he won in 2012 with nearly 52 percent of the vote against Jennifer Roberts, a popular Democratic former county commissioner.

Earlier this year, Pittenger was advocating for increased counter-terror cooperation between the United States and Russia. Now he has joined other Republicans in calling for “draconian economic sanctions” against Russia and blaming the president for escalating troubles in the Ukraine, says a McClatchy report. With the fall election drawing closer, expect more tough talk from the man who just last month provided the North Carolina barbecue at a bipartisan lunch.

The 2014 midterm election is already shaping up as a litmus test for the political state of the state. North Carolina may not be quite as dire for Democrats as South Carolina, where Democrat Rick Wade recently dropped his bid for the Senate seat of Republican Tim Scott. (Wade, a native South Carolinian and former Obama administration official said, “I certainly had no illusions about being able to match a multimillion dollar campaign war chest. But after a couple of months as a candidate, I’ve concluded that the timing of my entrance — less than a year before Election Day — had compressed the calendar too much for me to raise the money needed to mount a serious challenge.”)

But North Carolina has seen a stampede of Republican candidates scrambling to run to the right, with a spot in the U.S. Senate in their sights. They are eager to take on and take down Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, the target of millions of dollars with of ads financed by Americans for Prosperity and other conservative groups attacking her vote for the Affordable Care Act. It’s a seat the GOP hopes will lead them to a Senate majority. Tuesday’s Republican win in a special election in Florida, a state that has voted less conservatively than North Carolina recently, may have even more challengers lining up.

While polls show a tight race for Hagan against any challenger, she has been taking actions as the senator from North Carolina with a special focus on military issues. A recent statement criticized a proposed Air Force budget decision to inactivate the 440th Airlift Wing from Pope Army Airfield at Fort Bragg. It’s a position that finds her in agreement with Republican Sen. Richard Burr and a bipartisan collection of the state’s U.S. House delegation. On Tuesday, Hagan, chair of the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, held a hearing in preparation for markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015, with an emphasis on maintaining funding for special operations forces.

As she reaches for a broad coalition of voters, she repeated her support for marriage equality in remarks at the Human Rights Campaign 2014 North Carolina Gala, and asked the LGBT advocates in the room for the activism and enthusiasm she needs.

On the Republican side, the divisions that were on display in Washington at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference are mirrored as different factions choose sides in the Senate race. In the GOP primary, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis has the support of many establishment figures, such as Karl Rove and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky.), both of whom have headlined fundraisers.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who won the CPAC straw poll, headlined a fundraiser there for Tillis competitor Greg Brannon, a Cary, N.C., obstetrician and tea party favorite. Brannon, who also has been endorsed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), has made news with reports of a 2012 message that minimized the differences between both parties by stating a vote for either Obama or Mitt Romney would “advance tyranny.”

Mark Harris, a conservative Baptist pastor from Charlotte, has the backing of former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Family nurse-practitioner Heather Grant has been competitive in polls, with other candidates hanging in there. The May primary may lead to a winner or a July runoff, something national party leaders no doubt want to avoid so Republicans can unite in opposition to Hagan.

Meanwhile, it is uncertain if the energized opposition to the conservative legislation of the Republican-controlled legislature and state house, seen in the Moral Monday campaign that brought out thousands of protesters, will make a difference in the November general election. A group from the Moral Monday campaign on Tuesday met up with a caravan stopping in Raleigh as it headed from Alabama to Washington to push for restoration of parts of the Voting Rights Act in some Southern states.

Politicians from both sides are calibrating their messages – too liberal, too conservative or just right. How will each side make the base care without angering the independents who cast the deciding votes? In North Carolina, with voters angry at different sides for different reasons, figuring out the answer is tricky.

It may take until November to discover exactly what North Carolina is thinking.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3
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