Politics & Government

Mark Harris says he won’t run 9th District election, throwing primary wide open

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Citing health concerns, Republican Mark Harris said Tuesday that he won’t run in a new election for the 9th Congressional District.

His announcement came five days after the State Board of Elections concluded a hearing into allegations of election fraud in the 9th District by calling for a new election. Harris, who led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes on Election Day, suddenly reversed himself last Thursday and himself called for a new vote.

It was on the witness stand that Harris revealed that not only had he been hospitalized in January for complications from an infection but that he’d had two strokes.

“After consulting with my physicians, there are several things that my health situation requires as a result of the extremely serious condition that I faced in mid-January,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “One of those is a necessary surgery that is now scheduled for the last week in March. Given my health situation, the need to regain full strength, and the timing of this surgery the last week of March, I have decided not to file in the new election.”

Though no dates have been set for a new election, it’s expected to draw national attention, including visits from Democratic presidential candidates, in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential campaign.

For Harris, former pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist church, the announcement marked the end of a three-year quest for the 9th District seat that initially appeared to end in victory. After the election, he went to Washington for new member orientation. He hired a chief of staff and was assigned an office on Capitol Hill. He’d even chosen new paint colors.

“It’s not clear that Harris would have won the Republican nomination” in a new race, said David Wasserman, an analyst with the Washington-based Cook Political Report. “It’s important to remember that Harris was a badly damaged candidate even before the (McCrae) Dowless affair surfaced. Democrats had savaged him using his own sermons to lower his standing with suburban women.”

Harris’ sermons, first reported in July by ABC News and Roll Call, questioned whether careers were the “healthiest pursuit” for women. Another called on women to “submit” to their husbands.

Dowless is the Bladen County political operative whose absentee ballot efforts on Harris’ behalf were at the center of the election fraud allegations.

Though Harris endorsed Republican Stony Rushing, a Union County commissioner, for the congressional seat Tuesday, his withdrawal opens the door to other Republicans.


‘Voters decide’

Former Sen. Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw said he’s “95 percent sure” he’ll run. Mathew Ridenhour, a former Mecklenburg commissioner, said he’ll decide by next week. With a possible May primary and October general election, Ridenhour said time is running out for people to make up their minds.

“I don’t think any candidate can sit on the sidelines too long,” he said.

Dan Barry, chairman of the Union County GOP who’s been mentioned as a candidate, said the choice will be up to voters.

“General election candidates are chosen by the voters,” he said. “We’re going to let the voters decide.”

Two prominent Republicans, former Charlotte mayor and N.C. governor Pat McCrory and former U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, have both declined to run.

“There are numerous quality candidates that are discussing a run and although the Party will not be involved in a primary, we have no doubt that a competitive nominee will emerge,” state GOP party chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement.

Harris’ quest for federal office began in 2014, when he unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate. In 2016, he turned to the U.S. House, running in the 9th District. That year he lost the primary to Pittenger by 134 votes. Testifying last week, he said he remained bitter over that defeat. In early 2017, he hired Dowless for his 2018 campaign.

Dowless is the man whose absentee ballot program had snared votes for one of Harris’ other 2016 primary opponents.

During last week’s hearing, witnesses testified that Dowless illegally collected absentee ballots in 2018. Testimony from Harris’ own son refuted his claims that he’d had no warning about Dowless’s activities before the state board refused to certify the race after the election.

Also Tuesday, sealed search warrants showed that state law enforcement officials have sought phone and financial records tied to the investigation of election fraud.

“Release of this information (earlier) could have jeopardized further investigation,” said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. “Additionally our intent has been to not interfere or in anyway influence the state board of elections’ investigation or process of determining whether a new election should be held issued.”

Though no timeline has been set, McCready has a jump start on Republicans. He raised $500,000 in the month since election officials first declined to certify Harris’ election in late November.

Rushing said he’s not worried about the cost. He said he spent little in becoming the Union County board’s top vote-getter last fall.

First elected in 2002 as a Union County commissioner, Rushing served until 2006, then was elected again eight years later. He’s been a commissioner since 2014. He owns Take Aim Training Range, a store that offers classes and sells firearms. He and his wife founded the 50-acre facility just across the border in South Carolina in 2008.

‘Stolen’ election

Harris ended his time on the witness stand last week by saying that a new election should be called because of the evidence about corruption presented. But in the wake of the hearing, both parties accused the other of trying to steal the election.

On Saturday, Rushing posted a meme on his Facebook page of black text under an American flag: “Dan McCready and his establishment friends just threw ALL of our ballots in the Trash! What are We Going to Do About IT?

“I’m just really concerned that we’re having an election stolen without any strong evidence of wrongdoing,” he told the Observer Tuesday.

In his statement, Hayes, the GOP chairman, wrote: “A word to Dan McCready and his Democrat allies: You did not get more legal votes and there are no free lunches in politics. You will be held responsible for the extreme positions your Party has taken and your role to erase more than 283,000 legal votes by citizens of the Ninth Congressional District.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called Harris’ endorsement “a kiss of death from the man who paid for, directed, and then lied about his role in the largest election fraud in recent North Carolina history.”

Wayne Goodwin, the state Democratic chair, blamed Republicans for trying to steal the election.

“Mark Harris may have seen the writing on the wall but that won’t save the eventual Republican nominee from being tainted by the Republican Party’s efforts to steal an election,” Goodwin said in a statement. “The entire country watched investigators lay out piece by piece how North Carolina Republicans committed an elaborate election fraud scheme, and that investigation will follow whichever Republican runs for this seat.”

Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

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Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.