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 HarrisNunes's 2018 Dem challenger launches voting rights group NC election board investigated GOP operative at center of fraud probe as far back as 2010: report Republican in controversial NC race sets off fire alarm trying to evade reporters 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 TrumpHouse Freedom Caucus calls for Congress to work on shutdown through break Democrat previews Mueller questions for Trump’s AG nominee Trump inaugural committee spent ,000 on makeup for aides: report MORE carried the district in 2016 by more than 11 points. That same year, Rep. Robert PittengerRobert Miller PittengerFight over North Carolina race set to drag on for months NC GOP calls on board to certify House race unless it can prove fraud changed results North Carolina on cusp of House race reset 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 Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiSenators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks On The Money: Shutdown hits Day 24 | Trump touts need for wall in speech to farmers | Poll numbers sag | House Dems push stopgap bills | How the shutdown could harm the economy | TSA absences raise stakes for deal Feehery: Current shutdown impasse is a fight over peanuts 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 NelsonFlorida lawmaker diagnosed with pancreatic cancer Rick Scott threw party at Florida governor’s mansion after DeSantis and family had moved in: report Restoration of voting rights by felons marks shift in Florida MORE (D) after a hand recount. Likewise, former Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisFlorida governor announces sheriff's suspension over Parkland shooting DeSantis asks entire South Florida water management board to resign Rick Scott threw party at Florida governor’s mansion after DeSantis and family had moved in: report 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 MeadowsHouse Freedom Caucus calls for Congress to work on shutdown through break Dreamers-for-wall trade going nowhere in House Trump on declaring national emergency: 'Not going to do it so fast' 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.”