Fight over North Carolina race set to drag on for months

A North Carolina House race rocked by allegations of electoral fraud is likely to stay undecided for months, as the state braces for a new election that may not take place until well into 2019.

Republican 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 leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes after the Nov. 6 race, but the North Carolina State Board of Elections has refused to certify those results as it examines claims of fraud involving absentee ballots in two counties.

Strategists believe the race will likely need to be redone, though it remains unclear if that rare step would be mandated by the state elections board or the U.S. House of Representatives, the ultimate authority on federal elections.

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Adding another layer of uncertainty is whether any redo would involve new primaries, in addition to the general election, a prospect that could change both the timing — and the outcome — of a new race.

Gerry Cohen, former special counsel for the North Carolina General Assembly, said a race that involves only a rerun of the general election could happen in the spring, but new primaries could drag the process out out until August 2019, under time frames that include a 45-day window for military and absentee voting.

More clarity could come as early as this week.

The General Assembly last week passed legislation mandating that any redo of a race must involve new primaries.

The legislation would also overhaul the current makeup of the Board of Elections, which has been ruled unconstitutional but is operating under a court order that allows it to remain in its current form until Dec. 28.

The board has come under repeated scrutiny from state Republicans questioning the impartiality of the probe.

But Gov. Roy Cooper (D) has vetoed the bill over concerns about a campaign finance provision in the bill, even as he has said he remains broadly supportive of the rest of the legislation.

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The General Assembly could now meet as early as this week, after the holidays, in an attempt to override Cooper’s veto, a likely prospect that could recast expectations for a new race.

Regardless, a decision on a new race, whether it includes a primary or not, would likely have to await the conclusion of a probe being conducted by the state elections board.

The board is set to hold an evidentiary hearing on Jan. 11 — more than a week after the new session of Congress gets sworn in under a Democratic majority.

The state Republican Party has changed its tune a few times on the disputed race, though its latest stance has called for the state board to certify the race unless it can present evidence that fraud changed the outcome of the race.

The board is investigating an alleged absentee ballot fraud scheme in rural Bladen County and neighboring Robeson County.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., a local political operative who worked as an independent contractor for Harris’s campaign, has been at the heart of the investigation.

If a new primary ultimately occurs, it would likely draw a crowded Republican field as speculation swirls about whether 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) will jump back into the race after losing to Harris in a May primary that has also come under scrutiny.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory (R) and several state legislators who recently lost reelection bids are also seen as potential Republican contenders.

But if no candidate were to win more than 30 percent of the vote, a second primary would need to be triggered to determine the nominee.

The state GOP has so far indicated that it’s sticking with Harris, who has said he was “absolutely unaware of any wrongdoing.”

But some in the state believe Republicans are on “different wavelengths” about how to move forward.

“I do get a sense from Republicans that some are sticking by Harris, some are pretty antsy,” said Carter Wrenn, a GOP strategist based in North Carolina.

“Democrats think Harris is damaged goods. Some Republicans think he is damaged goods and want a primary too.”

Democrats are relishing an opportunity to win another House race after flipping 40 GOP-held seats in the November midterms — many in similar districts to North Carolina’s 9th.

The 9th District, which includes Charlotte’s suburbs and some more rural pockets of the area, has been a Republican stronghold for over five decades, but McCready came within less than half a percentage point of winning the seat in November.

If McCready doesn’t draw any challengers in a primary redo, he would automatically go into the general election.

Democrats are bullish that they could defeat Harris in a rematch, but still believe they go in with an upper hand even if they face an entirely new GOP nominee.

“I think both sides pretty much acknowledge that Harris is tainted. The whole issue of turnout and enthusiasm could certainly play a factor,” said Scott Falmlen, former executive director of the state Democratic Party. “Generally speaking, Democrats have an advantage.”

Local progressive group Progress NC Action recently ran a TV and digital ad campaign calling for a new election. The group said it typically doesn’t spend money on advertising and instead focuses more on earned media, but kept the door open to similar involvement if there’s a new election.

Progress NC Action recently held a town hall in Bladenboro — a city in Bladen County — where people packed a local church that seats 200 people. A spokesman for the group said residents shared stories of people going door-to-door to collect their absentee ballots.

The group is considering holding future town halls and partnering with the state’s NAACP.

“It’s hard to make much preparations before that becomes clear, but we will play as much as a role that we’re able to in the event of a new election,” said Logan Smith, communications director for Progress NC Action.

What is less clear is whether Republican enthusiasm will match the Democrats, given concerns that sticking with Harris could impact fundraising.

But Wrenn, the GOP strategist, noted that a majority of the money from the November campaign in the 9th District came from outside national groups, and he says a similar rush could come next year in what would likely be the only game in town.

“The Democrats are lusting after picking up one more seat. Will Republicans feel as strongly about it?” Wrenn said. “If they do, scores of money from Washington will be coming into that district.”