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Will Mark Harris get another chance? It’s up to voters

Mark Harris speaks at a meeting of Union County Republicans.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
Mark Harris speaks at a meeting of Union County Republicans.

Voters in North Carolina’s new 8th Congressional District have been bombarded with a commercial from the super PAC America Leads. Set to ominous music, the narrator intones that what was called “the nation’s greatest electoral fraud” was Mark Harris’ fault.

Later in the 30-second spot, the ad calls Harris’ actions “pathetic.”

The ad is just one of many reminders that for Harris, the 8th District primary is as much a referendum on his past — and whether voters forgive him for a ballot fraud scandal — as it is about any of his policies or positions.

Harris, a Republican, appeared to have won a 2018 Congressional race by 905 votes against Democrat Dan McCready for the 9th Congressional District. But the state board of elections declined to certify the result, citing allegations of mail ballot fraud in Bladen County, at the far eastern end of the district.

Harris had hired a political operative, McCrae Dowless, who was later charged with illegally collecting mail ballots from voters. He died in 2022 before his trial.

The board called for a new election. Harris declined to run. And Dan Bishop defeated McCready in September 2019.

Harris, a pastor, spoke at a GOP lunch last week at a Golden Corral in Monroe.

In front of a small crowd, he addressed the scandal, in a roundabout way.

“Candidates and political power with more than $1 million of PAC money are involved in the silliest ads and the silliest attacks I think I have ever witnessed,” Harris said.

He noted that the super PAC, America Leads, used to support former New Jersey governor Chris Christie — a Republican opponent of former president Trump, whom Harris wholeheartedly supports.

Next week’s election will show whether voters in the mostly rural 8th District are willing to give Harris a second chance.

The district begins in suburban Mecklenburg County and then stretches east to Robeson County. It’s a heavily Republican district, and the winner of the March primary will be favored to win the general election in November.

In his speech to the Monroe Republicans, Harris pivoted to attack his biggest rival: Republican state legislator John Bradford. He lives in north Mecklenburg, which isn’t in the district. Bradford has said he will spend $2 million of his own money to win.

“And one of the candidates in this race, and I’ll just call him out — John Bradford — is very close friends with Thom Tillis. And together their mindset has been, we’re going to somehow buy the 8th Congressional seat. And it’s time for you, the leaders in Union County to wake up and see what is happening,” Harris said.

(Harris’ house is in Mooresville, which also isn’t in the district. He has said he has an apartment in Union County that he and his wife stay in during the week. She teaches at a nearby school in Indian Trail.)

Bradford did not attend the lunch, sending a surrogate there instead.

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

Crowded field, personal attacks

Harris and Bradford attacked one another in a debate last month while ignoring the rest of the six-person field.

Harris cast Bradford as a moderate who wouldn’t support a ban on abortions after six weeks; Bradford said he was pro-life, though he didn’t answer specifically whether he would vote for a so-called "fetal heartbeat" bill.

(In his last election in 2020 in a swing district in north Mecklenburg, Bradford said during the campaign that he had no intention of voting for further restrictions on abortion, which at the time was limited to 20 weeks. Bradford ended up voting for a ban on most abortions after 12 weeks.)

Bradford also criticized Harris for his role in the 2018 scandal.

“The evidence was clear that they had hired someone on the campaign that had done election ballot harvesting and that’s illegal,” Bradford said at the January debate.

There are four others running: former Union County Commissioner Allen Baucom; Cabarrus County real estate agent Leigh Brown; former Naval officer and author Don Brown; and Republican activist Chris Maples.

Brown ran in the 2019 special election and finished fourth.

All of the candidates are running as conservatives, with similar stated policies.

At the January debate, for instance, all raised their hand when asked whether they would vote to impeach President Biden.

If no one gets above 30%, there will be a runoff.

Baucom, a farmer, is lending his campaign $1 million of his own money, He’s been endorsed by the sheriffs and district attorneys in Union and Stanly counties.

He said he asked Harris not to run last fall.

“Not because of a benefit to me, but number one, it’s negative to Christianity,” Baucom said. “Number two, it’s a negative to his family. Why would you put your family through this? And three, it’s a negative to the Republican Party. And he said at that point that he had won the election and he was entitled to it.”

Shifting positions

At the Board of Elections investigatory hearing in 2019, Harris made a shocking pronouncement: “I believe a new election should be called.”

But since announcing his candidacy in September, Harris — who was never criminally charged — has said he made a mistake.

He has not apologized for what happened. Instead, he has cast himself as the victim of a plot by Democrats to take the election from him.

After the Golden Corral event, Harris answered a few questions about the race.

When asked about his request for a new election, Harris said he wouldn’t have done that had he known the full picture of what happened.

“Keep in mind that was based on the information that we were receiving in that hearing,” Harris said. “So much came out later. Had I known those facts early, it would have been a whole different approach to it.”

He said there weren’t enough questionable ballots to change the result.

And he’s upset that a former Democratic member of the state elections board was communicating with Harris’ Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, before and after the investigation, according to reporting at the time by WBTV News.

“So the more and more it began to take shape that there was some kind of manufactured scandal that overturned an election, I said, wow this is unbelievable,” Harris said.

Harris’ telling omits some of the most explosive parts of the scandal, such as Harris’ son, a prosecutor, testifying that he warned his father against hiring Dowless. Harris also leaves out that the state elections director at the time, Kim Strach, was a Republican.

And at one point during the 2019 hearing, Harris’ lawyers stopped him from testifying, worried that he might perjure himself.

He said: Old news.

“The people of this district know what happened,” he said. “And they have their views of what happened. At the end of the day, I’m in this race because I don’t want the bureaucrats … (or) a weaponized agency for political purposes to have the final say in Mark Harris’ public service and being a voice for this district.”

Harris said he’s gotten some vitriol while greeting people during early voting. Others, like Joe Pomykacz of Union County, said they have moved on.

“Well, I think Mark is a good man,” he said. “I think he’s a believer, I mean we’re all human. Everyone makes mistakes. I think his heart is where it needs to be.”

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.