The right line keeps moving

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 12, 2013

RALEIGH — During his time in state Senate, Congressman Robert Pittenger was hardly known as a moderate Republican who got squishy when it came to 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, of course, is that he joined in voting to end the federal government shutdown.
Tea Party groups were opposed, willing to risk a default on federal debt payments and the possibility that 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 that they inspire among Republican officeholders has become a key driver of policy and the political discourse.
In Pittenger’s case, it is difficult to predict how a primary challenge might play out. He is a wealthy man, and congressional incumbents have huge advantages. And who knows who this 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. Democrat might use that weakness or overcome an opponent to the right of Pittenger to win the seat.
That possibility doesn’t seem to bother the 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.
There’s another, less obvious side to that struggle that ought to be equaling 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 re-write the state’s medical malpractice laws to put more limits on doctor and health care provider liability. It was the kind of meat-and-potatoes business reform on which traditional Republican politics was focused.
Republicans 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 writes columns for Capitol Press Association.