It’s already been a long and strange campaign for Democrat Dan McCready. And it may not be over.
He started running in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District in the spring of 2017. Nearly 18 months and $6 million later, he appeared to come up 905 votes short of beating Republican Mark Harris. But allegations of ballot fraud have left the election in court and under investigation, and the candidates in limbo.
With a new election possible, McCready, 35, has been rebuilding his campaign.
“We want to make sure that if a new election is called, we’re in a position day one to start communicating with voters, to do everything we need to do to be able to carry on this fight,” he told The Charlotte Observer this week.
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A new election could be the year’s only congressional contest, guaranteeing national attention and money. Two announced Democratic presidential candidates — Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand — already made fundraising appeals for McCready.
“Inevitably it will be seen as a referendum on the contest between (President Donald) Trump and congressional Democrats,” said political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia.
Presidential candidates, he added, “will have to make a pilgrimage” to the district.
Though the State Board of Elections has twice refused to certify his election, Harris has sought to show that he’s the rightful winner and should have been seated with the new Congress on Jan. 5.
“We believe that . . . I should be certified,” Harris, 52, told reporters this month. “We don’t believe that the number of ballots in question would change the outcome of this election.”
While Harris has been making his case in court and in the media, McCready has been quietly laying the groundwork for a new campaign.
Soon after the state board first refused to certify the election in late November, McCready called his spokesman Aaron Simpson with the news. Simpson, heading north in a U-Haul on Interstate 85, turned around and returned to Charlotte. He was soon joined by about a dozen staffers from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Over the next few weeks, they began resurrecting the campaign, cranking up digital and fundraising operations and visiting voters in Bladen County.
McCready, meanwhile, took his family to Disney World and generally shied away from the media. Now, with a flurry of interviews, that’s changing.
“We’ve been trying to unplug a little bit,” he said, “but also lay some groundwork and make sure that if this election is called we’re ready to fight for the voices of the people whose votes were taken here in North Carolina.”
‘Country over party’
McCready, a graduate of Duke University, led a platoon of Marines in Iraq and later earned an MBA from Harvard. In Charlotte, he took a job with McKinsey & Co., a global consulting firm. After leaving there in 2012 and taking a year-long hiatus, he started a company with Rye Barcott, a former Marine he’d met at Harvard.
The company, Double Time Capital, invested in solar energy projects. In 2017 Fortune Magazine reported that the two had raised $80 million from investors, including former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr. and the late Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers.
McCready wasn’t particularly political. In 2016, he was a registered independent. He contributed to Republican candidates and says he even voted for some, including Pat McCrory in the 2012 gubernatorial campaign. A former Democrat, he re-registered with the party in January 2017, just in time for his first run for office.
In a district that hadn’t elected a Democrat in decades, McCready promised to “put country over party to get things done.” Critics called that a vague substitute for more detailed policy positions and said the bi-partisan rhetoric masked a liberal agenda reinforced by more than $364,000 from a political action committee tied to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. In response to criticism from Harris and others, he promised not to vote for her for speaker.
McCready easily won his primary last May. He went on to face Harris, who upset three-term U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger in the GOP primary. Harris is the former pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church and a former president of the Baptist State Convention.
McCready carried six of the district’s eight counties in unofficial returns. Harris won two, Union and Bladen.
Three weeks later, the trouble started.
In voting to not certify the election, the elections board turned a focus on Bladen County.
Bladen County had the highest percentage of absentee ballot requests in the state. There, 7.5 percent of registered voters asked for them; in most counties it was less than 3 percent. Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer found that in seven of the district’s counties McCready won a lopsided majority of mailed-in absentee ballots. But in Bladen, Harris won 61 percent even though registered Republicans accounted for only 19 percent of the county’s accepted absentee ballots.
Affidavits claimed that people had signed absentee ballots and turned them over to workers for McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County political operative. Harris has acknowledged hiring Dowless. And state investigators are looking into allegations that Dowless led an operation that broke laws in the handling of absentee ballots.
“We hear rumors, we heard allegations,” McCready said. “We had no idea the extent of the fraud.”
Now, he blames Harris.
“It’s really shameful the way that Mark Harris and folks who had knowledge of this fraud (and) refused to do anything have been acting,” he said. “Mark Harris right now is going around and claiming to be a victim. The people who are the victims are the voters.”
Harris could not be reached. But Dallas Woodhouse, the state GOP’s executive director, claims McCready is behind a “political hit job.”
“There was a conspiracy and I believe McCready was in on it,” Woodhouse said. “Can I prove it in court? Not yet . . . The perpetrator is McCready and the victims are more than three-quarters of a million people not represented in Congress.”
Simpson, McCready’s spokesman, called that “a laughably ludicrous conspiracy theory, even for Dallas Woodhouse.”
A hearing is scheduled Jan. 22 in Wake County Superior Court. A separate hearing is expected after a new state elections board is named at the end of the month.
Republicans have continued to push to get Harris in Congress.
”We’re going to get Mark certified because he won the race,” said Woodhouse.
But if there is a new election, the issues surfacing in Bladen County could take center stage.
Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Washington-based Inside Politics, said like Trump, “voting rights will be a rallying cry for Democrats” in a new election. McCready agrees.
”What we have going on right now in North Carolina is about people whose votes were stolen, whose voices were taken from them,” he said. “This culture of corruption, it’s no secret that it’s there. I don’t think I realized how prevalent it was, how deep it goes.”