Election scandal looms over House race in NC

Election scandal looms over House race in NC
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Republicans in North Carolina are grappling with how — or even whether — to address the allegations of widespread fraud and misconduct that marred the results of last year’s House race in the 9th District and prompted election officials to order a new vote.

For Republicans, the decision by the North Carolina State Board of Elections last month to call for a new round of voting in the 9th District was an embarrassing finale to a case that sent shockwaves throughout the state.

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That decision came at the end of a days-long evidentiary hearing in which state elections officials and witnesses described an expansive absentee-ballot scheme orchestrated by Leslie McCrae Dowless, a political operative hired by the 2018 Republican nominee Mark HarrisMark HarrisSacramento police reviewing 12-year-old's arrest after video goes viral Trump tweets 'Total Endorsement' of NC GOP House candidate North Carolina state senator wins GOP primary in 9th District MORE.

The episode has left the field of 10 Republican candidates running in the new election struggling to answer a key question: How do they move past a scandal that rattled public confidence in the outcome of a crucial House race?

“We’re beat up,” said Dan Barry, the outgoing chair of the Union County GOP. “The Republican brand is beat up in the 9th District.”

Barry expressed hope that Republicans could soon put the 2018 controversy behind them and focus on policy issues as they prepare to take on Democrat Dan McCready in the general election later this year.

But, he acknowledged, “you can’t just pretend like it never happened.”

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“Do we want to rehash the 2018 election or do we need to move on and let the law enforcement agencies and regulators deal with that?” he said. “I’m hopeful that we don’t get dragged into a long, drawn-out relitigation of 2018 as we deal with the 2019 special.”

Days after the elections board voted to hold a new election, Harris announced that he would not run in the race, citing medical issues.

That decision could weaken Democratic attacks tying Republicans to the absentee ballot scheme and a broader culture of ethical failings.

McCready, the 2018 Democratic nominee in North Carolina’s 9th District and the only Democrat running in the new race, has already launched an aggressive campaign hammering Republicans over the fraud scandal and putting voting rights at the center of the new election.

“This fight is bigger now than just a seat in Congress. It's about standing up for our freedoms, and there's no freedom more sacred than our right to vote,” McCready said in a statement to The Hill. “That's a right we fought for in the Marines, and that's a right we're fighting for here in North Carolina. The voters deserve a continued and complete investigation into the many officials, candidates, and operatives who financed, knew about, or covered up the historic election fraud and the leaked early vote totals.”

While Republicans are eager to put the November election behind them, doing so may prove difficult.

Scott Falmlen, a Democratic strategist and former state party executive director, said that the new election is in itself a reminder of the uncertainty surrounding the 2018 race. He suggested that Republicans will ultimately have to confront the issue on the campaign trail.

“I think they do need to address it,” Falmlen said. “Clearly there’s a reason why we’re having to have this special election.”

Matthew Ridenhour, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner who’s running for the 9th District seat, said that the controversy surrounding the 2018 election “will inevitably come up in the new race.”

“That’s why we are here today with 10 candidates in this race,” he said in a brief interview. “It will inevitably come up and it will need to be addressed.”

But Ridenhour said that he hoped to focus on policy issues such as reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs and addressing the rising national debt.

He added that he wanted to “convey to folks” that his campaign will be run “with integrity,” pointing to his experience in the Marine Corps as evidence that he runs “a pretty tight ship.”

“This is a new election with new candidates, and I and the new candidates should be judged on the campaigns we’re running and the issues we’re talking about and moving forward from this point rather than focusing on the past,” Ridenhour said.

Harris led McCready after Election Day by 905 votes. But state elections officials refused to certify him as the winner of the race after allegations emerged that workers had collected absentee ballots in rural Bladen and Robeson counties, in violation of North Carolina law.

Those allegations touched off a months-long investigation that has left voters in the 9th District without representation in the House since January. The State Board of Elections has set a new primary election for May 14, with the general election tentatively slated for Sept. 10.

If no Republican candidate secures at least 30 percent of the vote in the May primary, a runoff election will be held on Sept. 10. That means the general election would be pushed back to Nov. 5.

Fern Shubert, a former North Carolina state senator and one of the Republicans vying for the seat, charged that elections fraud has long taken place in the 9th District.

“What’s new,” she said, “is that the board of elections looked into it.”

But Shubert downplayed the notion that the controversy surrounding the absentee ballot scheme would weigh heavily in the new election, saying that the matter was now one for law enforcement.

“I don’t really plan to be talking about it that much,” Shubert said in an interview. “If the grand jury is convening in mid-April, I’m going to focus on core issues — illegal immigration, debt and taxes, roads, health care.”

Other Republicans, however, are eyeing a strategy accusing Democrats of trying to steal the 9th District election by pushing to invalidate the initial results.

Stony Rushing, the GOP candidate backed by Harris, said that the State Board of Elections was “playing a game” in the 9th District “rather than running an investigation” and that McCready ultimately used that game to his advantage.

Rushing said that he would look to make issues like border security, taxes and abortion centerpieces of his campaign. But, he noted, he would not shy away from discussing what he said were efforts by McCready and others to politicize the investigation into last year’s election.

“We’re going to beat Dan MCCready and we’re going to beat him bad to where people don’t have any doubt what went on,” Rushing said in an interview on Tuesday. “Nobody has ever denied representation to the people of the 9th District like Dan McCready has.”

In a fundraising email to supporters last week, the North Carolina Republican Party said as much, insisting that "DEMOCRATS have forced a SPECIAL ELECTION in North Carolina, and the race is TIED!"

In a statement, North Carolina state Sen. Dan Bishop, who is favored by state GOP officials to win the 9th District nomination, did not address whether he planned to discuss last year’s election fraud scandal during his campaign.

Instead, he said he would focus on building support for President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, lowering taxes, opposing abortion and advocating for gun rights.

“I’m running because Dan McCready’s Democratic Party has gone completely crazy, and nobody buys that McCready is going to stand up to the crazies in Washington and protect our values,” Bishop said. “He’s the wrong Dan in this race. This campaign is going to focus on why I’m the right Dan.”

One state GOP official acknowledged that the party had “lost” the public relations battle in the fraud case, but suggested that Republicans could rally their base voters around the notion that Democrats had “wiped away an election.”

“There’s no free lunch in politics,” the person said. “Republicans are going to hold the Democrats accountable for having wiped away an election.”