Congressman [mc_name name=’Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’P000606′ ] of North Carolina’s 9th District has been a big disappointment to conservatives, and drawn Tea Party primary challenges in the past. Among other issues, Pittenger is an outspoken supporter of a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens.
Pittenger already has an announced primary challenger for 2016, but this time it is not from the Tea Party or other conservatives. The challenger is George Rouco, a Charlotte lawyer who has previously run a family food business and served a five year stint in the CIA. The curious thing is that it has been an open secret that Rouco, a son of Cuban emigre parents, has been being groomed as Pittenger’s successor by the Charlotte area GOP establishment but with the intent that the transition would happen quite a few years down the road.
Why is Rouco being suddenly thrust into the race as this seemingly premature juncture and apparently as an active challenge to the sitting congressman? The answer likely has to do with the recent initiation of an FBI investigation that involves Pittenger’s real estate investment company, which was turned over by Pittenger to be run by the Congressman’s wife since he won his House seat. Pittenger has shown no sign of wanting to leave Congress over that issue, and some local conservatives interpret the Rouco announcement as the GOP establishment putting a horse head in his bed, signalling that they will come after him if he does not leave on his own. Others believe that a transition agreement has already been reached and Pittenger will delay a retirement announcement as long as possible to try to discourage other candidates from getting in. Some have even wrongly interpreted the Rouco bid as another Tea Party challenge, something it definitely is not.
Rouco has close ties with GOP establishment figures who have been close to Governor McCrory, Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, [mc_name name=’Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’T000476′ ], and [mc_name name=’Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’B001135′ ]. There seems to be a concern that a Pittenger scandal blossoming in the middle of campaign 2016 with Pittenger still an active candidate could also hurt Burr and McCrory. This is an attempt by the establishment to head that off. Rouco’s announcement and his website have both been very light on issues, although he specifically denies that Pittenger’s potential FBI trouble have anything to do with his running.
Area conservatives point to two conservative Mecklenburg County Commissioners, Bill James and Jim Puckett, as strong potential conservative candidates for the Congressional seat, but neither has given any public indication of interest yet. Either James or Puckett would start off with far higher name recognition, especially in what is by far the district’s largest county than Rouco, who has never held public office. Another name also has entered the discussion among conservative activists looking for a strong conservative candidate in the district is conservative Charlotte attorney Tom Ashcraft, who served as United States Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina during the Reagan administration and prior to that serving on the staff of conservative US Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC).
The 9th District is the North Carolina district that has longest been continuously in Republican hands, being first won in 1952 by Charles R. Jonas, and subsequently held by Jim Martin, Sue Myrick, and [mc_name name=’Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’P000606′ ]. Martin himself had begun his political career as a Mecklenburg County Commissioner before moving up to Congress and then later Governor.
North Carolina’s Congressional primaries are currently set for May of next year, but within the last few days there have been rumblings in the legislature of moving all primaries to March to coincide with the presidential primary, with the idea that this would be more beneficial to incumbents. One of those behind the proposed change is liberal Republican State Rep. David Lewis (RINO-Harnett), House Rules chairman and the state’s GOP National Committeeman, who is expected to have a stiff primary challenge himself.
There are presently two active 2016 conservative primary challenges to incumbent NC establishment GOP congress members, Jim Duncan against [mc_name name=’Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’E000291′ ] in NC-2 and Pattie Curran against [mc_name name=’Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’F000450′ ] in NC-5. Both of those challenges are locally generated. On the other side of the coin, the national GOP establishment will again push K Street carpetbagger Taylor Griffin against the state’s most conservative Congressman, [mc_name name=’Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’J000255′ ], in NC-3.