Today in North Carolina

Right line keeps moving

November 15, 2013 

— During his time in the state Senate, Congressman Robert Pittenger was hardly known as a moderate Republican who got squishy on social issues or soft on taxes.

In those three terms in the legislature, the Charlotte real estate developer signed on to bills to limit abortion and to put constitutional limits on the growth of the state budget.

You wouldn’t know that listening to a Tea Party group that has named Pittenger its top target for the 2014 elections.

“You have failed to honor your commitment to your constituents and the values they entrusted you to uphold,” read a statement from the general counsel of the Virginia-based Tea Party Leadership Fund PAC.

Pittenger’s crime, is that he joined in voting to end the federal government shutdown.

Tea Party groups were opposed, apparently willing to risk a default on federal debt payments and the possibility that default would lead to a market crash draining average folks’ retirement savings.

So this particular group has decided to target Pittenger in a primary.

These kinds of primary challenges are why a lot of congressional Republicans followed along with the decision to shutdown the government. The fear these primary challenges inspire among Republican officeholders, at the state and federal level, has become a key driver of policy and the polarized political discourse.

In Pittenger’s case, it is hard to predict how a primary challenge might play out.

He is a wealthy man, and congressional incumbents have huge advantages. He can put a lot of money into a primary campaign. And who knows who this Tea Party group would recruit as a potential challenger?

Nonetheless, a substantial primary challenge has the potential to weaken Pittenger going into a general election race. Even in gerrymandered congressional districts that give many incumbents a strong advantage, perhaps a Democrat could use that weakness or overcome an opponent to the right of Pittenger to win the seat.

That possibility doesn’t seem to bother the ridiculous Tea Party types, who view politics as a zero-sum game and reject compromise by discounting the views of Democratic officeholders and voters as illegitimate.

That dynamic in the ongoing struggle within the Republican Party has been thoroughly discussed.

Another, less obvious side to that struggle ought to be equally disconcerting to reasonable Republicans.

Pittenger, when he was in the state Senate, didn’t make a name for himself trying to halt government or championing divisive social issues.

His prominence in the state legislature came from leading GOP attempts to rewrite the state’s medical malpractice laws to try to put more limits on doctor liability.

It was the kind of meat-and-potatoes business reform on which traditional Republican politics focused.

Republicans eventually passed medical-malpractice reform when they gained control of the General Assembly.

But operating on a political field where primary fears are driven by the fringes, that kind of traditional policy focus is easily undermined and cast aside.

Why concentrate on those things when there is a socialist revolution to stop?

Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.

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