North Carolina on cusp of House race reset

A new election in North Carolina’s 9th District appears all but certain as new fraud claims surfaced about early votes that were leaked and as more details emerged about the alleged illegal collection of absentee ballots.

More Republicans are joining the chorus of calls for a reset, with the state GOP saying a new race is necessary if allegations that early votes were shared with nonelection officials prior to Election Day in Bladen County are true.

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Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina GOP, told reporters Tuesday he’s “pretty certain” those votes were leaked. A precinct worker in Bladen County, N.C., made the allegation in an affidavit released by state Democrats this week.

Prospects are also growing that any new race could involve a primary as well; previous expectations were that it would likely entail a general election rematch between Republican 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 and Democrat Dan McCready, but investigators are also looking into potential fraud from the state’s Republican primary in May.

Woodhouse demurred Tuesday on whether the state party would be open to a new primary and noted they are standing by Harris.

A new election is a rare move, whether it is called by the state or Congress.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE), which is still investigating fraud allegations surrounding absentee ballot irregularities, can order a new election. The U.S. House of Representatives also has the authority to order a new contest. The chamber will be taken over by Democrats in the new year after the party flipped at least 40 seats in November.

“I think that the level of taint at this point is getting sufficient enough that the state board would have to seriously consider a new general election,” said Michael Bitzer, a North Carolina political expert and political science professor at Catawba College.

Harris currently leads McCready by 905 votes, but the NCSBE voted not to certify the results and will hold an evidentiary hearing on or before Dec. 21 regarding the findings from its investigation.

The NCSBE is investigating the unusually high number of requested absentee ballot, many of which were unreturned, in rural Bladen County and neighboring Robeson County.

Claims are piling up around Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., a Bladen County public official who is being investigated over allegations he ran a scheme that paid people to illegally collect voters’ absentee ballots.

Local news outlets reported late Tuesday about a new affidavit from Republican campaign volunteer Kenneth Simmons, who alleged that Dowless told him that he had more than 800 absentee ballots in his possession.

When Simmons asked why he hadn’t turned them in, Simmons said Dowless replied, “You don’t do that until the last day because the opposition would know how many votes they had to make up.”

“My concern was that these ballots were not going to be turned in,” Simmons wrote in a signed affidavit.

And a photo surfaced late Tuesday that shows Harris smiling and standing beside Dowless. The picture was taken at a March political event in Bladen County, according to WSOC-TV.

Democrats, including McCready, have been pressuring Harris to answer questions about his ties to Dowless, including when the two met, how they were introduced, what Harris believed Dowless was hired to do for the campaign and if a background check was performed.

Democrats are already gearing up for a new election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently sent nearly a dozen staffers to the 9th District, ranging from mid- to senior-level staffers including legal staff.

And McCready’s campaign has brought back its staffers and sent fundraising emails to supporters, according to WFAE in Charlotte.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” a McCready campaign fundraising email says, referring to the picture of Harris and Dowless together. “But sometimes it’s worth more than a thousand votes.”

Meanwhile, the progressive group Progress NC Action has started running ads saying that North Carolinians “deserve” a new election. Those ads are running in the Charlotte media market as well as Robeson and Scotland counties.

Republicans are also weighing their legal options, with Rep. Tom EmmerThomas (Tom) Earl EmmerGOP maps out early 2020 strategy to retake House Steve King faces new storm over remarks about white supremacy Jeb Bush: GOP leaders need to 'actively support' primary challenger for Steve King MORE (R-Minn.), the newly minted chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), briefed on the situation.

Prospects of a new election have also grown after the North Carolina State Board of Elections was allowed to operate in its current form until later this month.

The existing version of the board was facing uncertainty since a state court ruled that the body is unconstitutional. The court stayed its ruling, which was set to expire Wednesday, but extended the current makeup of the board until Dec. 28.

Any new North Carolina election has also raised the increasingly likely prospect that it would involve a primary, in addition to a general election.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill on Wednesday that would, among other things, revert the nine-member board to its original form of five members: three from Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) party and two from the opposing party.

The bill would also require a new primary to occur if the state board calls a new election.

The provision on a new primary was initially met with resistance from some GOP legislators and was scrapped Tuesday night, but it was added back into the final version of the bill. Both state chambers easily passed the bill, which heads to Cooper’s desk.

Democrats are likely to prefer to have a new general election instead of a redo that involves a primary, since some strategists suggested they’d rather face a rematch with Harris than the potential of facing a different Republican in a new general.

“I think on the Democratic side, the calculus is: If we want to try and win the seat, what better candidate is there on the Republican side than Mark Harris?” Bitzer, the Cawtaba professor, said.

Woodhouse, the state GOP official, told reporters Tuesday that they’re still standing behind Harris and believe he didn’t know about any wrongdoing.

The Republican official said they gave Harris a warning that they’d hold a press conference supporting a new election if claims that early votes were leaked are proven to be true.

In a video statement last week, Harris had said he was “absolutely unaware of any wrongdoing” and is fully supportive of the elections board investigation. The NCSBE has subpoenaed Harris as well as Red Dome Group, a political consultant firm that contracted Dowless.

If a new election is called by the state board, it has the statutory authority to set the date of the vote and handle the timeline as well as other elections operations like preparing the absentee ballots.

But the U.S. House has overriding authority since they have the ultimate power over federal elections. If the House decided to call a new election, it could reset the entire race: a new filing process, primary and general election.

A new primary could give 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-N.C.) another chance to fight for his seat after he was narrowly defeated by Harris in the May primary. The outgoing congressman has remained mum on whether he’d mount another bid for his old seat.

Pittenger has reportedly voiced concerns about potential electoral fraud in the May primary after Harris edged out the congressman in absentee votes during the primary.

According to The Washington Post, Pittenger told national Republican officials that he suspected fraud, but that they did not look into his claims. The NRCC denied to the Post that Pittenger raised any concerns.

The swirling developments have left officials scrambling as North Carolina faces the unprecedented decision of setting a new race.

“We’re entering territory where nobody in North Carolina has any experience with,” Bitzer said.