The new campaign in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District kicked off Friday with a rally by Democrat Dan McCready, hints from several would-be GOP candidates and silence from Republican Mark Harris.
The flurry of action came a day after the North Carolina State Board of Elections ordered a new election following a hearing that detailed election fraud in Bladen County.
It made its decision after Harris stunned the hearing with his own call for a new election, after insisting for weeks that he won the vote last fall and should be certified. He led McCready by 905 votes after Election Day.
“When you see a culture of corruption built by someone else’s campaign, this is bigger than one race, this is bigger than one election,” McCready told a roomful of supporters at a Waxhaw brewery. “We are going to keep fighting.”
Whether McCready could face a rematch with Harris is unclear.
Harris didn’t comment on a race before abruptly leaving the hearing moments after making his statement, in which he alluded to health issues that hospitalized him in January.
“Though I thought I was ready to undergo the rigors of this hearing and am getting stronger, clearly I am not and I struggled this morning with both recall and confusion,” he said, adding that he’d had two strokes while hospitalized for a severe infection.
Former Sen. Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw, who is exploring a 9th District race, said Harris’ decision should be “based on his health issue whether he can sustain another rigorous campaign.”
Harris could not be reached Friday.
At the hearing, Harris was criticized for ignoring warnings from his own son about getting involved with Bladen County operative McCrae Dowless, who ran his absentee vote program in Bladen and Robeson counties. Testimony from witnesses showed Dowless at the center of what officials described as a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme.”
The scandal drew national attention. Meeting with reporters Friday, President Donald Trump was asked why he hadn’t spoken out about the election fraud.
“I condemn any election fraud,” he said, citing what he saw was fraud against Republicans in California, Texas and Florida. “I condemn all of it, including North Carolina.”
Some Republicans say Harris shouldn’t run.
“It would probably not be in (his family’s) best interests or our party’s best interest for him to run again, so he can focus on his health and putting this issue behind him,” said Republican consultant Larry Shaheen, who worked for Harris’s GOP primary opponent, former U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger.
The primary campaign would be relatively short. Though no schedule has been set, elections officials said one scenario would be for a May primary, a June runoff if needed and an October general election. The same officials have proposed a May 14 primary in the 3rd District, vacant since the death of Republican U.S. Rep. Walter Jones.
While McCready already has raised more than $500,000 and has a national network of donors, Harris and other Republicans would be starting from scratch. Harris essentially ended his campaign after November. And some Republicans wonder, since the election fraud scandal, where he would find the money or staff to run.
Dan Barry, the Union County GOP chairman, said Harris and his family “will be mulling over their ability to run a serious campaign, raise money, recruit volunteers and execute.”
Asked whether Harris would be politically damaged if he runs, Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP, said it would be up to voters to decide.
“Quite frankly, as I said yesterday, this is not an episode of ‘Perry Mason’,” he said Friday. “This is about real peoples’ lives, real families, and it’s going to take some time to figure out where everybody goes from here.”
There could be more GOP candidates.
Former Mecklenburg County commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, a Charlotte Republican who lost his seat in November, said he’s received texts and emails since Thursday urging him to run. He expects to decide within a few days. And Republican legislators could run for Congress in a special election without fear of losing their seats, which are not up until 2020.
Despite McCready’s headstart, the 9th District still leans Republican. No Democrat has represented it for decades and President Donald Trump carried the district by 11 points. But some Republicans said the election fraud and Harris’ ties to Dowless have hurt the party’s label in the 9th.
“We have some work to do to repair our brand, and I’m not sure the current folks in leadership know exactly how to do that,” said Shaheen. “In my opinion party leadership in Raleigh made a fatal mistake by jumping out in front and being so supportive when they didn’t have the whole story.”
In Waxhaw, McCready applauded the election board decision.
“Every day that goes by without representation is tragic,” he said. “We’ve got three-quarters of a million people who have no voice right now because of fraud and cheating conducted by my opponent’s campaign. . . . A lot of people have had their confidence shaken in our electoral system. But we also have confidence now that the process works.”
Staff writers Adam Bell and Bruce Henderson contributed.