Dan McCready had just returned home from a trip to Disney World with his wife and four kids when he received the news: The North Carolina Board of Elections declined to certify his narrow election loss, and his campaign for the House — which he had conceded weeks earlier — wasn’t over.
Now, with a special election in response to alleged voter fraud looking increasingly likely, the ex-Marine is scrambling to reassemble his campaign. And McCready, who’s currently trailing Republican victor Mark Harris by 905 votes, would have the inside track, political operatives from both parties say.
The race would undoubtedly become a national spectacle, commanding attention not only because of the backdrop of potential election fraud, but because it would be the sole federal campaign occurring at the time. One Republican political consultant compared it to the special House election in Georgia in the summer of 2017, which drew tens of millions of dollars in outside spending and attracted a horde of national political reporters to the state.
“I think you’ll see that repeated here, if it happens,” said Carter Wrenn, citing the battle between Democrat Jon Ossoff and former GOP Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.), which broke a record as the most expensive House race ever. Handel won that election, only to lose her seat a year later in the midterms. “Like that one, this would be the only game in town.”
Privately, national and state Republicans acknowledged that Harris, who denied in a statement Friday that he had any knowledge of any illegal activity, would be a toxic candidate. Some Republicans in the state are holding out hope that Harris could be replaced on the ballot, which would require intervention from a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. But if the state board votes to rerun the election, the only way for Harris to be removed from the ballot would be if he moved out of state, according to Gerry Cohen, who formerly served as special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly.
“Harris is damaged goods,” said a North Carolina Republican operative, granted anonymity to candidly discuss internal party discussions. “How is he going to be able to raise many money after all of this?”
Harris, for his part, said in a video statement on Friday he would “wholeheartedly support” a new election if the state board finds illegal activity that “could’ve changed the outcome of the election.”
Democrats are quickly ramping up for a sequel. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has deployed a dozen aides and lawyers to the district and the campaign has resumed daily campaign conference calls. They’re also sorting out with lawyers how to raise money under these circumstances, and at the same time calling staffers and volunteers back into action.
“They’ve got to bring the band back together,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in the state who’s informally advising the McCready team.
It won’t be easy. Many of McCready’s campaign staffers had dispersed before the election fraud news broke. Some departed for New York and Washington, while another aide is traveling around South America. One staffer who had just moved home for the holidays hopped back into his U-Haul to return to Charlotte for a possible rematch.
McCready withdrew his concession on Thursday, calling the allegations over absentee ballot collection “shameful criminal activity, bankrolled by my opponent, to take away North Carolinians’ right to vote.” And the state board will meet in the coming days for an evidentiary hearing, which state operatives expect to result in a special election.
“It’s contingent on that hearing, but that’s the expectation,” said Brad Crone, a North Carolina-based consultant who has worked with Democrats and Republicans. “And McCready will start with the competitive advantage.”
A McCready win would add one more House seat to Democrats’ 40-seat gain in November. This Charlotte-based seat mirrors other districts — a mix of urban and rural counties — that Democrats were able to flip throughout the country, driven by a distaste for President Donald Trump among unaffiliated and moderate voters in suburban communities. Trump won the district by 12 points in 2016.
The potential fraud centers on an independent contractor hired by the Harris campaign who’s been accused of collecting and illegally returning hundreds of voters’ absentee ballots.
Initially, the North Carolina Democratic Party took the lead in fighting for an investigation into allegations of election fraud into two rural counties, Bladen and Robeson. The party filed a half-dozen affidavits from voters in the area, who described handing over their ballots, some of them incomplete, to people who said they were assigned to pick up ballots in the area.
Those affidavits also cast Leslie McCrae Dowless, a local political operative in Bladen County, as a central figure in a mail-in ballot harvesting operation, sending people door-to-door to illegally collect ballots from voters.
A Harris campaign consultant, Andy Yates, told The Charlotte Observer earlier this week that they hired Dowless, who was convicted of felony fraud in 1992, to work on “grassroots for the campaign.” Dowless denied any wrongdoing to the Observer.
But an analysis by Catawba College’s J. Michael Bitzer also raised questions about the absentee ballot results in both the 2018 primary and the general election. Bitzer pointed to McCready’s lopsided victory amongst absentee ballots in seven of the eight counties that comprise the 9th District, except in Bladen County. Harris won 61 percent of the mail-in ballots there, even though registered Republicans accounted for 19 percent of the counties accepted absent ballots.
Democrats in the state said they expect the “the fraud investigation and the conduct of the Harris campaign” to be a “big part” of any special election messaging, Jackson said. “Democrats, Republicans, unaffiliated voters have, every day, read in their newspapers and seen on their TVs that there are problems with cheating with Harris, so that inevitably gives McCready a leg up.”
“If, in fact, the board finds [Dowless] committed election fraud, then it’s quite natural that the next question is, ‘what did Harris know and when did he know it?’ Wrenn said. “How Harris answers that will determine …read more