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North Carolina 9th District race a test for Republicans after 2018 losses to Democrats

May 13, 2019

The 10 candidates seeking the Republican Party’s nod to run for North Carolina’s vacant 9th Congressional District face a choice: turn the page from the voting scandal that spoiled November’s election, or side with failed Republican Mark Harris, who many conservatives say was robbed of his win.

The race for the Charlotte-area seat is shaping up as the first test of how President Trump and the new Democratic House majority are playing with the public after the 2018 wave election.

Democrats’ nominee is set, with Dan McCready, who trailed Mr. Harris before the vote was canceled, running again. Republicans will pick their nominee Tuesday.

“We see a lot of people that are motivated and angry to vote to right what they perceive as a wrong that was done to the 9th district earlier in the year,” said Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing, who has received Mr. Harris’ endorsement. “Voters know that I’m the only candidate that stood behind our candidate last year.”

November’s vote was canceled after political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. was charged with illegally collecting absentee ballots on behalf of Mr. Harris. That practice, known as ballot harvesting, is legal in some states but not in North Carolina.

Mr. Harris had led Mr. McCready by 905 votes after Election Day, but the State Board of Elections ordered a redo in February. Mr. Harris opted against running again, citing health issues.

Adding to GOP woes, Robin Hayes, a former congressman and chairman of the state Republican Party, recently was indicted on corruption charges.

State Sen. Dan Bishop, who has been leading the crowded field in recent polling, acknowledged that voters aren’t “pleased” in the wake of such events, but said they’ll be energized as long as they have a strong conservative candidate to rally around.

“They also know that there’s a 15-year pattern of misconduct on the Democratic side in Bladen County that has not been rooted out by the Board of Elections, and they’re aware of that sophisticated voters,” Mr. Bishop said at a recent candidate forum.

Other candidates said that while they weren’t thrilled with what Mr. Dowless did, Mr. Harris himself wasn’t necessarily at fault and there are rampant issues with voter fraud on the other side as well.

Fern Shubert called Mr. Dowless, who registered as a Republican after the 2016 elections after a history of voting in Democratic primaries, an operative for the other side.

“Harris was not into North Carolina politics, and he was way too trusting of people who were in North Carolina politics,” said Ms. Shubert, a former state legislator. “The State Board of Elections has a habit of running cover for Democrats there has been voter fraud going on down there, I know, since I moved back to North Carolina, and that was in the early ’90s.”

Albert Wiley Jr., a physician, said some parts of the district care more about the issue than others, but mostly he thinks people are fed up.

“I think everybody’s kind of moving beyond it, the general public,” Mr. Wiley said. “They’re more interested in, what’s going to happen to my social security and medical care and health care?”

Leigh Brown, a Realtor, said the GOP brand is not “soiled” in the wake of the recent controversies.

“You have some people who made decisions I’m sure they regret and hired people they shouldn’t have hired, but you also have people that say one bad apple does not spoil the barrel,” she said. “And I’m not calling Mark Harris a bad apple I still think he just made a bad judgment call hiring a bad guy.”

Matthew Ridenhour, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner, called Mr. Harris a good man and said it sounded like people “downstream” from him hired some people they shouldn’t have.

“I guess if there’s a silver lining to all this it’s that this has been brought to light and that hopefully this means going forward we have free and clear elections that do not have any hint of fraud,” Mr. Ridenhour said.

But Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition, predicted that it would be a motivating factor for Republicans.

“I believe the Board of Elections in North Carolina [has] a responsibility to notify candidates that they knew there was some type of ballot harvesting operation going on, or that they suspected it. And yet, they didn’t. And Mark Harris just walked right into a trap,” she said.

The issue could play a role in the general election, where both sides are likely to use the flap as a rallying cry, said J. Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury.

“I think partisan lenses will color what the rationale for the general election is going to be,” Mr. Bitzer said. “Both sides are probably going to use the ‘the other side stole this election’ mantra.”

Mr. McCready recently signed a fundraising pitch for the Democratic National Committee in which he said he almost lost last year’s race because of “a coordinated effort on behalf of my opponent to steal votes and rig the election.”

“This special election is not just about winning a seat in Congress,” he said. “It’s a referendum on Republicans’ decades-long strategy of using dirty tricks to maintain their grip on power whether through gerrymandering, strict voter ID laws, or, in this case, actually stealing votes.”

If no candidate wins more than 30% of Tuesday’s vote, the second-place finisher can request a runoff that would take place on Sept. 10. Otherwise, the general election do-over will be on that date.

Mr. Rushing, who has been running second in recent polling, has said he won’t call for a runoff if he does end up finishing in second on Tuesday.

A GOP operative familiar with the district said Mr. Bishop should clear the 30% threshold anyway, and said the current environment should be an improvement for the GOP compared to last year in what’s already a Republican-leaning district.

“I think generally, the environment is a lot better for us than it was the last time, and of course, with whatever else happened, we did win,” the strategist said. ”[If] McCready gets elected, he’d better not sign a long-term lease.”

The south central district, which stretches from the Charlotte area along the South Carolina border, leans Republican, and the GOP has held the seat for decades.

“It’s a Republican district, but it’s a changing district, too,” said Thomas Mills, a past Democratic consultant who now publishes a blog on North Carolina politics. “What made it close is what you saw really in southeast Charlotte, and to some degree that’s where you have a little bit of a rejection of Trumpism. Whereas on the other side of the district, you’ve got an embrace of it.”

Mr. Ridenhour said he’d be comfortable trying to present a choice to voters between the GOP’s vision and that of new far-left figures in the House like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have risen to prominence with Democrats holding the majority.

“We’re able to say look, is Maxine Waters on [financial services], is that who we want? Is Pelosi as speaker, is that what we want? With the AOCs, with the Green New Deal, is that really what we want?” he said. “And we can point to that and say, now if we want to reject that, then we got to get to work. And I think that energizes and motivates people.”

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