ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C.—A ballot-fraud scandal that brought down a Republican candidate and led North Carolina to order a do-over congressional election could give the Democrats a strong shot at taking back a seat that has been held by the GOP since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.
Democrat Dan McCready has a head start in fundraising and name recognition, and the allegations of ballot tampering have cast a shadow over the Republican Party that could help him win in the deeply conservative and mostly rural 9th Congressional District.
But there are also fears that the scandal could cut both ways, with fatigue and disillusionment over the electoral system keeping some voters home.
“It could be a lot of folks are not going to vote. Period,” said Glendell Robinson, a Democrat who plans to vote. He said he has never seen anything like the scandal, having lived all of his 78 years in Bladen County, and hopes others will be able to overcome fears that their votes won’t count.
The new contest was ordered by the state elections board last month after it concluded that GOP candidate Mark Harris’ lead of 905 votes out of about 280,000 cast in November was tainted by evidence of ballot fraud by political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless and others working on Harris’ behalf. Dowless was arrested Feb. 27 on conspiracy and other charges involving the 2016 general election and 2018 primary.
According to testimony at a board hearing, Dowless and others illegally collected other people’s mail-in absentee ballots and, in some cases, forged signatures and filled in votes for local candidates. It’s against the law in North Carolina for anyone but the voter or a close relative to handle a ballot.
The new election could take place as soon as July.
Harris, who has denied any wrongdoing, said he won’t run again. And with two other big names, former Gov. Pat McCrory and ex-9th District Rep. Robert Pittenger, deciding not to seek the House seat either, McCready sits in a good position, even in a district that has been in GOP hands since 1963 and was won by Donald Trump by 12 percentage points in 2016.
“For right now, he would definitely have to be looked at as the front-runner,” Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer said.
Activists from both parties expect heightened national attention and lots of campaign money flowing into the off-year race. The district includes part of Charlotte and stretches through several rural counties along the South Carolina line.
By Gary D. Robertson and Sarah Blake Morgan.