Republican and Democratic officials in North Carolina are beginning to maneuver for position in anticipation of a fierce and protracted second campaign in the state’s scandal-ridden 9th Congressional District.
But as investigators examine whether election fraud was committed, there is increasing doubt over who will carry the GOP banner into the fight.
Speaking publicly for the first time in a week, Republican nominee Mark Harris confirmed to Charlotte, North Carolina’s WBTV on Friday that he personally had hired Leslie McCrae Dowless, the campaign operative at the center of the fraud allegations, but said he believed the operative was following state law.
“I had no reason to think what he was doing was illegal,” Harris said.
Democrats spent the week zeroing in on Harris’ connection to Dowless, demanding that Harris address the extent and nature of their relationship, while escalating nationwide fundraising appeals to back their own candidate, Dan McCready. Republicans took action of their own – to nudge Harris off the stage. The GOP-controlled state Legislature passed a bill, with the support of many Democrats, that would mandate a second primary be attached to any replay of the November midterm. It is still unclear if Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who helped negotiate the measure, will ultimately sign off.
The Washington Post added to Republican worries on Thursday night, first revealing that Dowless had been brought onto the campaign at Harris’ direction. On Friday, the Robeson County Republican Party called for an “immediate and open response from (the Harris) campaign.”
Harris told WBTV that a local official had vouched for Dowless and that, in his conversations with the operative, he had been led to believe that Dowless’ “absentee ballot program and get out the vote program” were all aboveboard.
Dowless previously denied any wrongdoing to The Charlotte Observer. He has not responded to CNN’s repeated requests for comment.
The decision to rerun the race, which Harris initially appeared to have won by a slim margin in November, ultimately rests with the State Board of Elections, which in its advisory on Friday said that “investigators are awaiting additional documents from parties subpoenaed in this matter and finalizing the investigation prior to the hearing.” Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who is running a wider ranging criminal probe with no clear timetable, told CNN earlier in the day that her office’s investigation “includes efforts to determine how the alleged fraudulent activity was funded and what was known by campaigns connected to this alleged activity.”
For the GOP, a successful push for a new primary would mean a chance that incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger or, according to some rumors, former Gov. Pat McCrory, could win the nomination from Harris and boost the party’s chances in the general election. Republican leaders have stopped short of calling on Harris to seek a legal avenue for exiting the race entirely, but one senior state GOP official told CNN the Charlotte-based pastor’s odds are getting longer.
“There is a growing realization of whatever the final facts are and irrespective of their personal affection for Mr. Harris – he is facing an insurmountable political problem that could have a major impact on the party,” the official said.
Asked if he felt under attack by his own party, Harris told WBTV: “I certainly don’t feel the circling of the wagons around Harris the way I see the Democrats circling the wagons around McCready.”
Democrats are indeed rallying for McCready, with the Democratic National Committee, along with Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, asking supporters to donate to McCready’s cause.
The GOP’s campaign strategy is murkier but beginning to take shape. In interviews with CNN on Thursday, two Republican state lawmakers acknowledged the overwhelming evidence of fraud, but argued that the problems affected voters of all stripes – and should not be viewed through a partisan lens. The Robeson County GOP in its statement Friday cast the scandal as a bipartisan fight.
“The lack of transparency and failures extend over a decade involving multiple board of elections members, three governors administrations of both parties along with numerous agencies tasked with protecting our electoral process,” Chairman Phillip Stephens wrote. “There is enough blame to go around.”
There are not, however, any credible allegations of fraud or misconduct against Democrat McCready’s campaign.
In response to a fundraising email sent Thursday by the North Carolina Democratic Party, which itself is seeking to frame the scandal as a swindle perpetrated by state Republicans known for “passing monstrous voter suppression laws to rigging our maps,” GOP state Sen. Dan Bishop lashed out and accused Democrats of seeking to make political hay out of a “very serious issue.”
“The gall, I mean it really does take brass ones, to go out and run fundraising drives alleging that this is a Republican thing,” Bishop told CNN, “and of course exploiting as an opportunist the situation that is emerging driven by a media frenzy.”
Asked if he had confidence in the state elections board, Bishop suggested it could be compromised by the ascent of a Democrat to its top position, saying the investigation “ought to be a fair process and those who are in positions like the board of elections must set aside their partisanship and proceed in a way that’s fair.”
State Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat who supported the bill that would attach a new primary to a new general election, said the party was prepared to rally behind McCready should the board follow through as he expected and call for a second vote.
“In backing Dan (McCready) and on insisting that all the votes count and that we have a thoroughly legal, aboveboard process that helps restore our confidence in voting, the party has taken the right steps to get here,” Woodard said. “If we’re moving toward a March primary, and an election sometime in the spring, I’m confident our party will do that.”
CNN’s Patricia DiCarlo, Ryan Nobles, Daniella Diaz, Curt Devine and Noah Gray contributed to this report.