A bitter feud between N.C. Republican Party Chairman Hasan Harnett and other party leaders could impact the state’s selection of delegates for what could be a contested national GOP convention.
Harnett says the state convention delegate election in May is part of the reason why members of the party’s Central Committee are trying to oust him. If no presidential candidate enters the July national convention with enough delegates to be nominated on the first ballot, many delegates would then be free to support any candidate on subsequent ballots.
Harnett said he’s concerned that establishment forces might try to elect delegates for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz who won’t support them after the first ballot.
“There are grave implications that are going to take place based on who the delegates are,” he said.
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Based on the March 15 primary results, Trump will receive 29 of North Carolina’s delegates. Cruz won 27 delegates here, while John Kasich won nine and Marco Rubio won six.
Harnett’s opponents within the party say that delegation selection isn’t why the chairman has been censured. They’ve cited a failure to raise money and a dispute over the state convention’s admission price among their grievances.
On March 20, the Central Committee took a vote of “no confidence” in Harnett, cut him off from party email and banned him from the GOP’s Raleigh headquarters. But as the smaller of the party’s two governing bodies, the Central Committee doesn’t have the power to remove the chairman.
Harnett was elected last June by the party’s Executive Committee, which includes hundreds of GOP leaders from across the state. Gov. Pat McCrory, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and many other Republican elected officials were backing another candidate for chairman.
The Executive Committee would vote on any petition to reject Harnett and elect a new leader.
“I will not be surprised if he is removed from office by an overwhelming majority of the membership,” said Scott Cumbie, assistant secretary for the party.
Cumbie said one reason he thinks Harnett should be removed is that he mailed a convention invitation that included admission fees that hadn’t been approved by the Central Committee.
Harnett wants to set the fee at $45; other party leaders say the organization can’t afford such a low fee and have set the price at $90.
Harnett ran for chairman on a platform of lowering fees, and he said a higher fee will make the convention unaffordable for grass-roots Republican activists. He argues that higher attendance will result in national convention delegates who best reflect the wishes of GOP primary voters.
“I’m here to speak up on behalf of ‘we the people,’” he said, “when a small handful of individuals are trying to control every move.”
The rift between Harnett and Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse first became public earlier this month when Harnett’s email account was shut off amid what Woodhouse described as a “security” problem.
Harnett sent Woodhouse a scathing email from a personal account accusing him of trying to undermine the party’s elected leadership.
Harnett responded with a racially tinged email that was posted to a conservative blog. “I mean seriously, is this some form of ritual or hazing you would put the first black chairman of the NCGOP State Party through?” Harnett wrote. “Or is it because I am not white enough for you? You keep pushing the limits. I guess time will only tell what your real plot and schemes are all about against me.”
Woodhouse declined to comment for this story and hasn’t spoken publicly about the dispute.
Garry Terry, a member of the Central Committee who resigned amid the discord, said Harnett’s public remarks are hurting the party’s reputation.
“Playing the race card doesn’t get it with me,” Terry wrote in an email to fellow Republicans. “People who serve in leadership roles are expected to uphold the highest of ethical standards and that precludes the use of racial epithets.”
Terry said the party has hired armed security guards to keep staffers “safe” at the Hillsborough Street headquarters since Harnett was banned from the building.
Terry says the party needs a new chairman before the infighting affects upcoming elections. “If our Republican incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds fails to win the June 7 primary, we lose control of the state Supreme Court,” he wrote. “Maybe a little more effort on elections would be more important than the current unrest caused by leadership of the party.”
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, said the current state of the NCGOP could harm campaigns.
“If people perceive their party is in disarray, you could see at the party level a loss of funding and a loss of volunteers,” Bitzer said.
He added that some candidates’ campaigns might avoid partnering with the state party. That happened in 2014 when infighting at the N.C. Democratic Party prompted U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s re-election campaign to instead work with the Wake County Democratic Party.
“There could be challenges made out of the state party convention to the national convention about credentialed delegates if there’s a deep division at the state level,” Bitzer said.
Harnett disputed complaints that he’s been unable to raise money for the party. “The reality is I’m right up there with the best of chairmen in terms of fundraising,” he said.
According to finance reports filed with the state, the NCGOP raised about $134,000 during the first two months of the year and spent $167,000, leaving it with $227,000 on hand.
The N.C. Democratic Party raised $130,000 during the same period, spent $106,000 and ended February with $564,000 on hand.
Harnett took over from former Chairman Claude Pope in June. From July to December, the party raised $685,000. It raised $574,000 during the first half of the year under Pope’s leadership.
“(Harnett) promised to raise a lot of money, yet in nine months he has not raised what is required to keep the party solvent for one month,” Terry wrote. “He has alienated major donors.”
The party’s attorney, Tom Stark, said he’s been investigating allegations that Harnett ordered someone to hack into the party website to change details about the June convention. Stark said he has not finished the probe yet but has found evidence that “suggested that there’s someone out there that meant to cause damage” to the website.
It’s unclear when a vote might be taken to oust Harnett at the Executive Committee, which doesn’t have a regularly scheduled meeting before the May convention in Greensboro.
“That process requires a petition to be presented with signatures of a specified number of members and confidential hearings,” Stark said.
Harnett, meanwhile, has called for the Executive Committee to meet on April 9. “It’s a matter of putting things behind us and preparing for the state convention,” he said.
But Stark said Harnett’s proposed meeting is problematic because many of the party’s congressional district-level conventions are scheduled the same day.