Politics & Government

‘An innocent victim’: Amid election fraud claims, NC GOP defends Mark Harris

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The executive director of North Carolina’s Republican Party on Thursday defended GOP candidate Mark Harris as an “innocent victim” and downplayed a report that incumbent Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger’s campaign alerted the party to voting irregularities in Harris’ primary upset in May.

In the primary in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, Harris received 437 mail-in absentee votes in Bladen County to Pittenger’s 17, according to state board of election records. Harris won the race — a rematch of his narrow 2016 loss — by 828 votes.

Pittenger recognized something right away as results came in on Election Night, mentioning a “ballot stuffer,” according to one person in the room that night. The Washington Post reported Thursday that several Pittenger aides contacted NCGOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse and someone from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

‘It’s likely that they said something. What could we have done?” Woodhouse told The News & Observer. “It’s not an excuse, but the reality is we hear from a lot of people during primary election campaigns. But we can’t take a role in them.”

North Carolina’s State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has declined to certify the results of the general election in which Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, citing voting irregularities and the possibility of election fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties.

NC Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes told The Charlotte Observer on Thursday that “Robert Pittenger didn’t say anything to me” about the results of the primary.

“We were not made aware by the Pittenger campaign of irregularities that required follow-ups from us. It may have been mentioned,” Hayes said. “At the end of an election, there are hundreds of issues to deal with. And you’ve got another election coming up.”

Hayes said Woodhouse would have brought a big issue to him if he’d been told.

The NRCC said Pittenger’s campaign did not bring it to their attention and said the campaign was mostly focused on its debt.

“It’s an incredibly untruthful thing to say from people who are trying to shift blame away from themselves,” NRCC communications director Matt Gorman told McClatchy. “The only thing Pittenger and his team did was beg us to retire his debt, which we did. We had to actually cancel the fundraiser for him that [then-Chairman Steve] Stivers planned for him, because Pittenger couldn’t get enough people to attend. Stivers helped raise money anyway, helped retire his debt. That was the only thing he was focused on, the only thing they cared about.”

Pittenger refused to discuss the 9th district Thursday when interviewed by McClatchy at a forum he organized on international security.

“People say whatever. I’m not commenting anymore,” Pittenger said. “They need to play out their hand and see what they have.”

Woodhouse said he noticed Harris’ performance in Bladen County.

““I thought ‘Man, Mark did really well in Bladen County. And someone told me, ‘Well, he had a concerted get-out-the-vote effort,” Woodhouse said.

McCrae Dowless, an elected official and political operative in Bladen County, has been accused of paying people to collect mail-in absentee ballots, including unsealed ones. Dowless was paid by Red Dome Group as a contractor to work on the Harris campaign. Harris paid Red Dome Group more than $430,000 during the campaign.

He has worked for candidates in Bladen County since at least 2010 with his candidate often earning a lopsided edge in the mail-in absentee vote total. In the 2016 GOP primary, for example, Todd Johnson earned 221 mail-in absentee votes in Bladen County in his run for Congress. Harris received four votes and Pittenger one. Johnson finished third in the race, which Pittenger won.

Last week, Pittenger told The Charlotte Observer: “Look at the votes. Follow the money.”

Hayes said it’s not the party’s role to look into voting irregularities.

“I wish that the attorney general, who was a Democrat and now the governor, had ... looked into it. He had every opportunity in the world to look into it (going back to 2010). ... That was not our role, then or now.”

Harris’ faith is also why Woodhouse said he believed any illegal activity — if it happened — would’ve been done without Harris’ knowledge.

Given Harris’ career as a pastor, Woodhouse said he thought Harris’ ground-game strength was with the churches.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Harris is an innocent victim in all this. I believe that. Chairman (Robin) Hayes believes that. (Harris) just wouldn’t do that,” Woodhouse said. “He’s not a win-at-all-costs guy ... He has beliefs.”

Katie Glueck of McClatchyDC contributed to this report.
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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.