RALEIGH - 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.
Incumbent Pittenger was defeated in his bid for a fourth term by the Rev. Mark Harris.
Two years ago, 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 conceded after trailing by about 1,000 votes in unofficial results throughout the evening Tuesday.
He thanked his family for their support along with his campaign workers.
"Thank you so much for all you've done, and support this congressman in our effort to give leadership in this country," he said.
Harris was jubilant in victory.
"It's unique, and it's unique in many, many ways, and I think many of you are getting a chance to sense that even now," said Harris to his supporters after claiming victory.
The 9th Congressional District includes parts of Charlotte and its suburbs, along with poor counties and areas close to Fort Bragg.
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.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and Rep. Patrick McHenry, the chief deputy whip, also won their respective GOP primaries, according to unofficial results.
Meadows, who will take on Tuesday's Democratic primary winner Phillip Price and Libertarian candidate Clifton Ingram Jr., represents the mountainous 11th District. McHenry, who represents the 10th District stretching from Gastonia to Asheville, won his race over five Republican challengers. He'll face Democratic David Wilson Brown in the fall.
Other GOP winners were Rep. Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk in the 5th District in northwestern North Carolina and Rep. George Holding of Raleigh in the 2nd District, which covers portions of Raleigh and surrounding suburbs, stretching to the northeast and southwest.
Foxx defeated two other Republicans and will take on Winston-Salem city council member DD Adams, the Democratic primary winner.
Rep. Alma Adams won the 12th District Democratic primary over three challengers in the district covering most of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Her Republican rival in November will be Paul Wright, who won a three-candidate GOP primary.
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