News: CJ Exclusives

Get ready for more drama as a new election in the 9th District looms

Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional race, listens to testimony during a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. (News & Observer pool photo)
Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional race, listens to testimony during a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. (News & Observer pool photo)

Does beleaguered Republican Rev. Mark Harris have a prayer of winning a new 9th U.S. Congressional District election?

With his congressional campaign in debt, his integrity under siege, his health in question, and a criminal investigation over corruption gathering steam, some political observers are doubtful. It’s also unclear he’ll seek the congressional seat a third time.

A State Board of Elections’ four-day evidentiary hearing culminated in Thursday’s 5-0 vote to order a new election. Harris sought to be declared the winner by a 905-vote margin over Democrat Dan McCready. But the national suspense surrounding the last uncalled congressional election didn’t end there.

McCready’s lawyers have hinted at further legal action to thwart House Bill 1029. It requires a full do-over, including candidate filing and primaries, after the new election was ordered.

McCready would prefer a do-over involving only the original primary winners. Then he would have to face the politically wounded Harris, and Libertarian Jeff Scott, who finished a distant third with 1.8 percent of the vote. Scott and McCready have said they plan to run in the new election.

Further clouding the picture is a decision released Friday by Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins overturning two constitutional amendments. He ruled the 2017 General Assembly was an illegally elected “usurper” body. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Collins’ decision could be interpreted to mean every action the legislature has taken since the 2016 election might be considered unconstitutional.

The elections board must set the schedule for a new election, but has not done so yet. It is the first time since 1974 a congressional election rerun has been ordered. It involved a disputed Louisiana contest.

Harris hasn’t said whether he would run in the new election. Some political experts think he should sit this one out after abruptly ending his testimony on Thursday. He said an infection that turned septic and led to his hospitalization triggered two strokes that have caused confusion and memory loss.

Republican political consultant Larry Shaheen said Harris is in an untenable spot.

“We all are praying for Mark Harris and his family as they go through this ordeal. It would probably be in their best interests for them to take some time and deal with what looks like an ongoing legal and electoral process,” Shaheen said. “Given the concerns that have arisen it would probably be in the best interests of everyone if Mark chose not to run,” and focused on his health and family instead.

Shaheen said the evidentiary hearing was not Harris’ worst obstacle. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has an open investigation into Bladen County election mischief.

“[Harris] would be conducting a campaign in the midst of an ongoing criminal investigation into his previous congressional campaign. That’s not a recipe for success in my opinion,” Shaheen said.

Kim Strach, elections board executive director, told Carolina Journal evidence and testimony from the evidentiary hearing will be turned over to the district attorney, and should help to speed up the parallel criminal investigation.

McCready lawyer Marc Elias and elections board members said fraud occurred in the election, though nobody has called for Harris to be charged with any crimes.

Investigators may be interested in Harris’ personal payments of $3,340 to Patriots for Progress to retain the services of its founder, Leslie McCrae Dowless. Elections board staff said Patriots for Progress had failed to file required reports with the state. As an independent expenditure political action committee it was legally barred from coordinating with a candidate. Harris said he was unaware of those issues.

Dowless is the political operative Harris hired, and whose purported illegal absentee ballot collections are at the heart of the scandal.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College who’s closely followed the saga, said Harris could ease out of the new election by citing his medical condition.

“I find it difficult to imagine a third attempt at getting the Republican nomination for the 9th Congressional District,” Bitzer said, citing Harris’ unsuccessful try for the GOP nomination in 2016 as well as last year’s contest.

Bitter said the evidence presented at the hearing took a toll on Harris’ reputation, likely making it tough to find voters to support him, let alone political consultants and campaign advisors to work with him.

Among the worst moments for Harris was his son’s testimony. John Harris, an assistant U.S. Attorney, warned his father that Dowless’ success at generating large numbers of absentee ballots might be due to unlawfully collecting them. The younger Harris said he thought his father didn’t know about Dowless’ illegal activities, and would have fired him had he known.

Dowless, a convicted felon Harris hired for get-out-the-vote efforts, refused to testify at the evidentiary hearing because the elections board wouldn’t guarantee him immunity.

A series of witnesses who worked for Dowless testified they unlawfully collected absentee ballots and turned them over to him; signed as witnesses after the forms were collected and post-dated them; forged others’ names as witnesses; and filled in unmarked boxes for some candidates. None of the witnesses said they changed any votes.

Bitzer envisions a potential free-for-all primary for the Republican nomination, with candidates emerging in all eight counties in the GOP-heavy 9th District. He’s not sure whether Republican voters will be invigorated by a new election or disillusioned and stay at home. Democrats are more likely to be fired up.

The nationally respected Cook Political Report rates the coming election a toss-up.

McCready might not draw a primary opponent. The renewable energy businessman is a money-raising machine whose campaign generated $6.6 million. He spent all but $87,838 of that, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission campaign finance report through Dec. 31.

Harris, on the other hand, raised $2.09 million, and had $86,344 in debts and loans with $19,131 cash on hand.

If Harris ran again, Democrats could remind voters of the contentious legal fight he quickly abandoned. A crowded GOP field might make it difficult for any candidate to reach the 30 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. A second primary could tax Republicans’ resources and weaken their position in the general election.

But will there be a primary?

“Under statute I think Mr. Harris is going to run again,” McCready lawyer Marc Elias said Thursday. “As I understand the law that it will be a repeat of Mr. McCready and Mr. Harris.”

Asked about the law passed in December requiring a congressional primary, Elias responded,  “I’m not so sure that’s true, but we’ll see.”

“I would not be surprised by a legal challenge to the primary component,” Bitzer said. “That could be another hurdle.”

But he said the courts may be unwilling to intervene about a political question on which they generally defer to the legislature.