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Mark Harris is back and running in the newly-drawn 8th district

In a campaign video, Mark Harris said the 2018 election was stolen from him.
Mark Harris campaign
Mark Harris, in an undated campaign video.

Remember Mark Harris? He’s the former Charlotte pastor and Republican candidate for U.S. House in North Carolina’s 9th District. In 2018, he appeared to win before a ballot fraud scandal prompted the state Board of Elections to call for a new election, and Harris decided not to run again.

Now Harris is back — running for the seat in the newly-drawn 8th District, which stretches from Mecklenburg County to Robeson County. And, he is saying the seat he ran for in 2018 was stolen from him. Tim Funk wrote about it for The Assembly, and he joined WFAE to talk about his story.

Mark Harris says his election was stolen
Republican Mark Harris is back, running for Congress for the fourth time. He's a pastor who's shifted from saying in 2019 that a new election should be held because ballot fraud tainted his apparent win to saying now that his election was stolen.
In a campaign video, Mark Harris said the 2018 election was stolen from him.

Marshall Terry: Tim, before we get into this year's election, let's rewind. I gave just a thumbnail of what happened in the 9th District. Remind us in more detail what went down.

Tim Funk: Well, Marshall, in that 2018 election, Mark Harris appeared to defeat his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by 905 votes. So it was pretty close. Still, McCready conceded. But then the State Board of Elections refused to certify the results because its investigation was turning up evidence of pervasive absentee ballot fraud orchestrated by a political operative from Bladen County named McRae Dowless.

Now Dowless was a convicted felon who was paid more than $131,000 by the Harris Campaign to handle absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties. Well, he and his crew mishandled them. Harris had personally hired Dowless against the advice of his own son, John Harris, a lawyer who was convinced that Dowless was a shady character who had cheated in a previous election.

So the Board of Elections had hearings in 2019. They made national headlines. And after listening to all the testimony, including from his son, who had been subpoenaed, Harris — from the stand — called for a new election.

The Board — three Democrats and two Republicans — then voted unanimously to hold a new election in 2019. But Harris decided not to run, citing a serious medical scare. So fellow Republican Dan Bishop ran narrowly defeating McCready, and he's held the seat since.

Terry: What has Harris been doing since all of that?

Funk: Since early 2020, Harris has been the senior pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Mooresville. He had walked away from his previous church — the much bigger First Baptist Church in Charlotte — so he could go all-in in that 2018 election. Harris actually has a second job. He works with the Family Research Council, which is an evangelical think tank, where he spends time in Washington, D.C., and sort of connects regularly with conservative pastors and churches around the country.

Terry: Now a lot of people figured after the 2018 election that Harris was done with politics — that was his third unsuccessful run for office. Why has he reemerged? What's he saying?

Funk: The Republican incumbent, Dan Bishop, decided not to run for another term in Congress. He's running for state attorney general, instead. So you have an open seat in the new 8th District, and the Republican majority in the state legislature redrew the 8th District to make sure it's likely to be a safe GOP seat — and some of those counties were in the old 9th District, where Harris ran before. So he's probably got higher name ID than his opponents. Harris has had a dream of serving in Washington, arguably, since even before he went into the ministry. This will be his fourth run in 10 years.

What's he saying? Well, he's figured a way to spin the scandal by invoking President Trump's politics of grievance. He's saying, like Trump, that Democrats stole his last election. There's some real problems with that charge.

For example, the Board of Elections vote to hold that new election was unanimous and bipartisan, not just Democrats, And a Republican, not a Democrat, went on to win the seat. But my guess is that this ‘Democrat stole my election’ pitch may have some appeal in the 8th District, where Trump is pretty popular.

Terry: How does Harris's claim that the 2018 election was stolen from him square with what he said right after the election as state election officials were investigating it?

Funk: Well, what he's saying now appears to contradict what he said from the witness stand in 2019. Now, to be fair, Harris told me that he was never really convinced that the number of absentee ballots that were mishandled would have erased his victory margin. And he told me he now regrets calling for a new election because he said he's learned things since then that were not thoroughly investigated.

For example, McCready had contact with a Board of Election member in late 2018, though we don't know what they talked about. Now that board member was no longer on the board that voted in 2019 to hold a new election. And, the board found that the fraud was so pervasive that it tainted the results, which is one of the findings that allowed them to legally order a new election.

Terry: So, Tim, you've covered both politics and also religion extensively, and those threads obviously weave right through Harris' life and career. What does his candidacy say about the relationship between the evangelical church and the Republican Party now? And what did Harris' congregation say when you talked to them?

Funk: As probably most people know now, white evangelical Christians as a group are the most loyal voting bloc in the Republican coalition. And I think that that community has become more energized and certainly more politicized by Donald Trump's ability to play hardball politics to further their agenda.

For example, getting three justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, which has long been a top priority for conservative Christians; the recent selection of Congressman Mike Johnson to be House speaker, I think, showed an even closer alignment of the GOP and white evangelical churches. Upon his election, Johnson said anyone who wanted to know where his conservative views came from should consult the Bible. I would say parts of the Bible would be more accurate. So Pastor Harris' candidacy is in line with that trend.

If you read the article in The Assembly, his quotes are filled with comments like, ‘I feel like God is calling me to run.’ Up to now, most of the clergy members elected to Congress have come from the Black church, which is also very political often -- although Democratic. So I think what you may be seeing is more Republican pastors may be looking in the mirror and seeing a politician.

I did talk to members of Harris' church. The head of the Deacons Board told me that they hired Harris in large part because he was not “politically correct,” as he put it. Harris is willing to speak out against abortion and homosexuality. And he's willing to mix religion and politics. He even invited Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson to come and give a sermon at the church. And he made headlines, incidentally, for bad-mouthing Rainbow flags at churches. And since then, the lieutenant governor has endorsed Harris in that 8th District run. So politics and religion are just hugging each other these days in the evangelical community.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.