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Is N.C.’s Pittenger Republican enough to withstand tea party challenge?

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, at 9:52 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, at 5:42 a.m.

— A year ago, North Carolina Rep. Robert Pittenger strode into Washington with a plan to stop the war between the parties. He wanted to instill some “humanity” into a dysfunctional city where Republicans and Democrats sometimes can barely look at each other.

The Charlotte Republican started a bipartisan freshman caucus whose mission was to help reshape Washington. The group still meets, but has largely dropped from the spotlight. Pittenger now has firsthand experience of the limitations any new members face trying to make a mark when they’re one of 435 members – let alone freshmen, who sit at the bottom of the totem poll.

“You have to find out, ‘Where can I make a difference?’ ” Pittenger said.

Political scholars in North Carolina give Pittenger relatively high marks for his first year, a “solid B” to an A minus.

He’s not done anything spectacular and stuck primarily to the mainstream Republican line. He hasn’t drawn much negative attention to himself – except for one big hiccup during the shutdown debacle.

An exchange last summer in which he told tea party groups that he opposed a push to defund Obamacare that led to the government shutdown went viral on YouTube. The Tea Party Leadership Fund PAC, which has targeted Pittenger, said Wednesday it plans to announce a primary challenger as soon as this week.

As a freshman, Pittenger is more vulnerable than more established incumbents. But it would take a pretty heavy hitter to topple Pittenger in a Republican primary. He beat 10 other Republicans in a drawn-out 2012 primary. The Charlotte real estate investor has also shown he’s willing to invest his own money into the race when needed.

Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer said he doesn’t feel Pittenger has done anything that would garner the type of revolt needed to oust him. He said the reality is there is very little any new member of Congress can accomplish especially in today’s Congress, which is considered one of the least effective in decades .

Bitzer said a main goal of any incoming member is to bring “ good feelings” back to constituents.

“What freshman members seek to do is to show voters back home that indeed they made the right choice and ensure they don’t have buyers’ remorse,” Bitzer said.

Every morning, the Charlotte real estate investor is typically out the door of his condo near the Capitol and on a treadmill by 6. By 7:30, he’s at his desk buried in a stack of financial documents prepared for him as part of his work on the Financial Services Committee.

When Pittenger was sworn in, his son approached Rep. Paul Ryan and asked if his father could exercise with him. The Republican former vice-presidential candidate is known for his disciplined workout schedule.

Pittenger joined Ryan’s group doing P-90x training for 10 months, but later realized he needed to start earlier so he could get to the office sooner.

“I didn’t realize how incredibly demanding it was going to be to do your job,” he said. “Learning what I’ve had to learn in financial services has been inordinately time consuming.”

The congressman has zigzagged across the 9th District as well as the world. He’s helped Mooresville with road issues and Charlotte with its air traffic control tower. He’s visited Israel, Egypt and Libya on fact-finding missions.

He’s introduced four bills and co-sponsored 164 pieces of legislation. None of his bills became law and just four of those he co-sponsored did, which his staff blames on Democratic Senate leadership for not taking up bills passed by the House.

Pittenger said one way he feels he’s been able to make a difference is through his role as chairman of the Congressional Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, which he was tapped to lead by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

Pittenger has also played the role of good Republican soldier, criticizing President Barack Obama at every opportunity from the health care law to the follow-up after the Benghazi attacks.

He’s able to use his Southern charm to make pointed questions sound like compliments.

When the new Federal Reserve chair, Janet Yellen, appeared before the House Financial Services Committee, he told her he had three daughters

“I’m proud of your success as I am theirs,” he told her.

He then graciously dug into her testimony and got her to acknowledge that reversing some tax increases can spur growth, a surprising statement from the Obama administration.

Critics on the left complain the constant criticism of Obama is counterproductive and undercuts Pittenger’s claims he really wants to work in a bipartisan fashion.

But Pittenger has also taken heat on the right. At least one tea party group considers him a RINO, or Republican in name only.

Despite voting against Obamacare a dozen times, he got caught in a mini-crisis last summer. During a town hall meeting at Queen’s University, Pittenger was asked if he would join other Republicans and vote to defund the health care law in connection with funding the government. He answered bluntly: no, and then warned the plan was doomed for failure. The exchange, caught on video, went viral.

He later voted to defund Obamacare after the House passed a provision that would ensure the military would be paid during a shutdown. He then voted again to raise the debt ceiling to reopen the government.

“You can call yourself a Republican all you want, but you cannot vote to fund Obamacare and then say you’re a Republican,” said Dan Backer, general counsel of the Virginia-based Tea Party Leadership Fund PAC.

Backer said Wednesday his group is working with two potential challengers and would make an announcement in the coming weeks.

At least Pittenger was willing to say publicly that defunding Obamacare was a bad strategy, said Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte.

Pittenger was ranked the fifth most conservative Republican in the North Carolina delegation and 67th in Congress, according to the recent National Journal Rankings.

The political incentive for Pittenger is otherwise. He’s in a solidly conservative district, but he hasn’t taken the hard-edged approach of his predecessor, former Rep. Sue Myrick. Heberlig said Myrick seemed to go out of her way to make polarizing comments about immigration and terrorism while Pittenger has focused his public comments on business issues such as modifying the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law.

Heberlig said Pittenger appears to be comfortable enough with these conservative credentials that he doesn’t need to tack all the way to the right to prevent such a challenge.

Since its initial press conference, Pittenger’s group, United Solutions, has drawn little attention. But it continues to meet. Members try to sponsor one another’s legislation. Recently, the group backed the bipartisan budget deal struck by Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Most recently, several members joined Pittenger at his office for Carolina pulled pork and ribs when he invited more Republicans to a barbecue lunch that was part of a lost bet to California Bay Area Congressman Eric Swalwell when the San Francisco 49ers beat the Carolina Panthers in the NFL playoffs.

At least they’re interacting, Heberlig said. Even advertising he’s working on bipartisan activities instead of only on issues that appeal to his base can be dangerous in today’s political climate, he said.

“Building personal relationships, any politician will tell you, that’s a critical facet of the job. I don’t think anybody thinks that’s the end,” he said. “But it’s precursor to doing anything else.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong name for the San Francisco 49ers NFL team.

Email: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @francoordonez

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