GOP opens door to new NC election amid fraud claims

Republicans are coming to terms with the possibility of a new election in North Carolina’s 9th District amid mounting suspicions that the results may have been marred by widespread fraud.

Mark HarrisMark HarrisThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate Why my American Indian tribe voted Republican in NC's special election North Carolina race raises 2020 red flags for Republicans, Democrats MORE, the Republican pastor currently leading in the race, said on Friday that he would “wholeheartedly support a new election” if an investigation surfaces evidence that “illegal activity” could have altered the outcome of the election — a remarkable about-face for a candidate who previously demanded that state officials certify the election results.

Likewise, Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina GOP, said he was “horrified” by the fraud allegations and insisted that Republicans would back a new election if the North Carolina State Board of Elections could show that the initial results were tainted by voting irregularities.

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The board, which has so far refused to certify the results from the Nov. 6 election after claims of fraudulent activities involving absentee ballots emerged, voted to hold an evidentiary hearing by Dec. 21. 

It could then order a general election rematch between Harris and the Democratic candidate, veteran and businessman Dan McCready. The incoming Democratic-led House could also call for a completely new election.

McCready said Monday that his campaign is already preparing for a special election as the House Democrats’ campaign arm stations legal staffers on the ground in the Republican stronghold.

“We’re gearing up right now in case we do have a special election,” McCready, who recently withdrew his concession, said in a Monday interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “This is in the hands of the North Carolina State Board of Elections that’s launched an investigation.”

A new election could put Harris in a precarious situation, with the Republican currently leading McCready by a scant 905 votes – less than 1 point in a district that Republicans have represented for more than five decades.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE carried the district in 2016 by more than 11 points. That same year, Rep. Robert PittengerRobert Miller PittengerBottom Line North Carolina reporter says there could be 'new crop' of GOP candidates in 9th Congressional District race North Carolina board calls for new election in contested House race MORE (R), who currently holds the seat, won reelection by more than 16 points, though he ended up losing his Republican primary to Harris in May.

But Democrats across the country have improved their standing this year in more GOP-leaning suburbs as the party sought to mobilize voters angry with the president. The party ended up flipping 40 seats in the November midterm elections.

A new election could put North Carolina’s 9th District into play again. It includes more GOP-leaning rural areas like Bladen County — which is at the center of the alleged absentee ballot scheme — but also includes the suburbs of Charlotte.

McCready outraised Harris throughout the campaign, more than doubling the Republican’s fundraising haul. But both candidates ended November with little in the bank and would basically start from scratch if a new election is called.

Strategists in the state believe it’s increasingly likely that a new election occurs, though they stressed that the Board of Elections’s hearing will give a clearer picture about what may have happened and what comes next.

“A lot would hinge on whether Harris’s campaign had any knowledge of the fraud that may have gone on. It’s hard to believe Mark Harris would have known about that. He’s going to have to answer that question,” Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina-based GOP strategist, told The Hill.

“If people are satisfied with his answer, it’ll be a close election,” Wrenn added. “If he doesn’t, he’ll have a problem.”

A convicted felon who was working with the Harris campaign as an independent contractor has emerged at the center of the fraud allegations surrounding the race.

Several witnesses have said that Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., a Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor who has worked in local political circles for years, paid them to collect voters’ ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina.

Investigators have been looking into an unusually high number of absentee ballot requests as well as unreturned ballots in Bladen County and neighboring Robeson County.

Dowless turned in nearly half of the 1,341 absentee ballots requested in Bladen County, CNN reported, citing records from the state elections board.

Harris edged out McCready in Bladen County absentee ballots, unofficial tallies show.

In his video statement on Friday, Harris said that he was “absolutely unaware of any wrongdoing” in the election and said he’ll continue to cooperate with the probe.

There’s two different routes for calling a new election. The state elections board has the statutory authority to order a new election, though that would only prompt a redo of the general, since the primary results have been certified.

The U.S. House of Representatives, which has the ultimate authority over congressional elections, can also call for a special election, which would trigger a new filing process, to be followed by a primary and general election. Top Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiKlobuchar shuts down idea a woman can't beat Trump: 'Pelosi does it every day' Budowsky: Trump destroying GOP in 2018, '19, '20 On The Money: Senate scraps plan to force second shutdown vote | Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny | McConnell rips House Dems for holding up trade deal MORE (D-Calif.) have floated the possibility of not seating Harris if the investigation remains unresolved.

Harris narrowly defeated Pittenger in the state’s May primary. But The Washington Post reported that Pittenger and his team suspected fraud had taken place in the primary, largely in Bladen County, the same county at the heart of the dispute in the race between Harris and McCready.

The controversy in North Carolina’s 9th District comes on the heels of a weeks-long recount battle in Florida’s closely contested Senate and gubernatorial races. During those fights, Republicans, led by Trump, repeatedly raised unsubstantiated accusations of fraud by Democratic election officials.

Rick Scott, the state’s term-limited Republican governor, ultimately defeated Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonBottom Line Bottom Line Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity MORE (D) after a hand recount. Likewise, former Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisStates brace for massive voter turnout in 2020 When it comes to health care reform, look to the states, not the federal government  Saagar Enjeti: Republicans lost Kentucky by failing to appeal to working class MORE (R) won his bid for governor.

But in North Carolina, Republicans have taken a different approach to the election fight in recent days, as a special election appears increasingly likely.

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMichelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award Sondland testimony looms over impeachment hearings this week Democrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, became the latest Republican to open the door to a potential new election.

He said in an interview with Hill.TV last week that it was still too early to tell whether a new contest was warranted in the district, noting that there are low-level irregularities “in every election that don’t affect the outcome.”

But, Meadows added, “if there is fraud that has gone on that has affected the outcome of the election, then certainly a new election would be appropriate.

“That being said, it’s way too early to suggest that. I don’t know that we even have a full understanding, other than reports, of what’s happening.”