Legislation quickly passed by North Carolina's lawmakers this week would prepare a path for Republicans to dump their nominee in a still-undecided U.S. House race marred with ballot fraud allegations.
"I think (legislators are) worried that Mark Harris might be damaged goods and they want to have the opportunity to have a different Republican nominee," said Carter Wrenn, a Republican operative and consultant to former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and others for more than 40 years. "That's how I read those tea leaves."
If the state elections board decides ballot irregularities or other problems cast the true outcome into doubt and force a redo, the legislation — if allowed to go into law by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper — would require new primary elections in the 9th Congressional District race, in addition to a new general election.
That would allow Republicans another look at Mark Harris, the Republican who led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in unofficial results. Harris hasn't been certified the winner, and an investigation is looking into missing absentee ballots in rural Bladen County and whether unsealed ballots illegally handled by collection teams there could have been altered.
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Bladen was the only county among the eight within the 9th District where Harris won a majority of mail-in absentee ballots over McCready.
State Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, said holding new primary elections in the 9th District made sense because unusual absentee ballots results also cropped up during last May's primary. Harris won 96 percent of the mail-in ballots in Bladen County on the way to his narrow victory over GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger.
The Republican-led General Assembly "has a political motive for doing this. They realize that Mark Harris is a damaged candidate and they're trying to find a means of replacing him on the ballot," said U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat. "So this is a pre-emptive strike, in my opinion, to remove Mark Harris and to get another nominee in there."
New primaries would open the door to Pittenger or anyone else to carry the Republican banner against McCready or some other Democrat.
Pittenger said he wants to wait until after the elections board reveals its investigative findings at a hearing that was postponed Friday until Jan. 11, meaning the seat will stay empty when Congress assembles Jan. 3.
"I have received calls from a number of friends in the last couple days. My instincts are that I just think we ought to wait for this evidentiary hearing and let all the facts come out. Then after that, maybe I can give more consideration to that," he said in an interview Friday.
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State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said that if there were to be a new primary election the state GOP would stay neutral but "every candidate who enters that primary, if there is one, will have a chance to make their case."
In an interview with WBTV on Friday, Harris stopped short of criticizing party officials when he was asked if he felt under attack by fellow Republicans. "Well I certainly don't feel the circling of the wagons around Harris the way I see the Democrats circling the wagons around McCready," Harris said.
Democrats could sue if primaries are set in motion, Butterfield said. Pittenger and other Republicans didn't contest Harris' nomination though suspicions about absentee ballots in Bladen County were raised then, so now should be too late, Butterfield said.
"It's fundamentally unfair to a candidate who has raised and spent millions of dollars in anticipation of Mark Harris being the opponent, to have to go through that again with a different opponent," Butterfield said. "Dan McCready shouldn't have to face two different opponents."