Weeks after winning the now-disputed 9th District congressional race, Charlotte Republican Mark Harris faces the daunting prospect of not only a new election but a new, wide-open GOP primary.
North Carolina lawmakers opened the door to two or even three new votes Wednesday when they passed a bill that would require a new primary if the election is ordered to be redone. Whether that happens depends on an ongoing investigation into election fraud that could prompt the state Board of Elections to order a new contest.
With the possibility of a new primary, Republicans across the district are quietly considering whether to run. Party leaders and potential candidates have exchanged texts and phone calls as they try to sort out what could be a potentially ugly contest.
Like his 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready in November, Harris’ primary win over GOP incumbent Robert Pittenger is at the center of allegations of election fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties. The state board could order new elections as soon as this month, though it’s not clear when elections would be held. The board has set no hearing date.
In addition to a primary, there could also be a runoff if no candidate captures 30 percent of the vote. One GOP lawmaker said the legislation, which still requires Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature, creates a logical next step to any new election.
“This says that if the (elections) board decides that it has grounds to take such drastic action, what good reason could there be for not extending it to the primary?” said Sen. Dan Bishop of Charlotte.
But some Republicans see another message.
“It’s sort of a sign that Republicans would like to have a different candidate other than Harris,” said longtime GOP strategist Carter Wrenn.
Harris could not be reached Thursday.
If there are new elections, who else might run?
▪ The most obvious Republican candidate would be incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger. He lost to Harris by just 828 votes in the May primary but hasn’t said if he would run again. Like McCready, the three-term congressman could portray himself as a victim of election fraud. He declined comment to the Observer.
Pittenger raised $1.4 million for the primary, but spent almost all of his money on that contest, federal records show. His campaign had just $2,637 on hand as of the end of November.
▪ Kenny Smith, the former Charlotte City Council member and mayoral candidate, has been mentioned as a possible contender. He couldn’t be reached Thursday.
▪ So has Dan Barry, the well-connected chairman of the Union County Republican Party. He declined comment.
▪ Republican Matthew Ridenhour, the former Mecklenburg commissioner who lost his south Charlotte seat in a surprise sweep by Democrats last month, said he’s considering a run. But he said his decision will depend on what Pittenger does, and he won’t run against the sitting representative.
“I’ve been following it closely,” he said of the 9th District controversy. “I’m keeping options open at this point for what my future might bring for me.”
Ridenhour, like McCready, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. That could help counter one of McCready’s key strengths — his status as a veteran — and offer the prospect of an unusual Marine v. Marine contest.
▪ Also mentioned has been former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory. But McCrory appeared to dismiss the prospect this week on his morning radio show. He said he’d been asked about the race by a national reporter. “I said do you want an answer in one word or two words?” he said.
If Republicans field multiple candidates, some leaders acknowledge privately that they could exhaust themselves in a contentious and costly primary.
Any Republican primary contenders could face obstacles in addition to a wide-open field. Depending on the elections board investigation, the party could be tarred with the taint of scandal. And Democrats aren’t even waiting.
One field may be set
Progress NC Action PAC, a liberal group, has launched what it calls a six-figure advertising campaign with images of Harris and news reports of the alleged fraud. McCready and his allies already have started fundraising on the budding scandal.
Although McCready’s campaign reported less than $10,000 on hand, he’s been a fundraising powerhouse, pulling in $6.2 million during his race and giving his own campaign $500,000. McCready is also attracting the support of national Democrats with big followings such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has tweeted out fundraising appeals on his behalf to her 4.7 million followers.
Democrats have also been clearing the field of a potential challenger. Last week, the state Democratic Party stripped Christian Cano of his position on the party’s State Executive Committee because, after losing the primary to McCready, he actively supported a Libertarian candidate. It ruled he won’t be eligible to hold a party post until 2021.
“If there is a new primary, Cano is not a Democrat in good standing,” said Jane Whitley, chair of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party.
And any GOP contenders will be fighting on a compressed timetable with limited fundraising opportunities.
If there are lawsuits filed by Democrats, Republicans, Harris or another candidate, the contest could be tied up in litigation for months before an election is even scheduled. And Harris’ evangelical base could stick by him, giving him an edge in a low-turnout race. Or evangelicals might not show up in the general election for the Republicans if another candidate captures the nomination.
At the center of the ballot-tampering allegations is Bladen County operative McCrae Dowless. He was hired by Red Dome Group, the political consulting firm that ran most of Harris’ campaign, for get-out-the-vote efforts. Mail-in ballots from Bladen County disproportionately favored Harris, and some voters have said they turned over ballots to people working for Dowless. It’s illegal in North Carolina for third parties to collect ballots.
Harris has remained mostly silent, issuing a video statement last week in which he said he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing and is cooperating with the investigation. His campaign and Red Dome have been subpoenaed, and the Board of Elections has said they’re investigating “potentially criminal absentee ballot activities.”
State GOP Chairman Robin Hayes said his party is ready to move beyond the current investigation.
“Whatever it takes to clean this process up and restore integrity to the process and confidence to the voters is our goal,” he said.