NC-09 scandal: Did Harris know what he was getting when he hired Dowless?

A week ago, the North Carolina GOP defended Mark Harris as an “innocent victim” in the unfolding election-fraud scandal in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district. Today, however, the Washington Post reports that Harris hired Leslie McCrae Dowless for his campaign despite getting warnings about the GOTV specialist’s tactics. A primary loss in 2016 to Robert Pittenger, the incumbent Republican he unseated this time around, allegedly spurred Harris to ignore the warnings:

North Carolina congressional candidate Mark Harris (R) directed the hiring of a campaign aide now at the center of an election-fraud investigation, according to three individuals familiar with the campaign, despite warnings that the operative may have used questionable tactics to deliver votes.

Harris sought out the operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, after losing a 2016 election in which Dowless had helped one of Harris’s opponents win an overwhelming share of the mail-in vote in a key county.

According to the Post’s sources, Harris knew about Dowless’ potential for election fraud two years ago, during the 2016 primary. Harris only got four absentee votes in Bladen County, three more than Pittenger got. However, third-place finisher overall Todd Johnson got 221 absentee votes, thanks to Dowless’ work for Johnson. Harris’ advisers told him then that Dowless had to have cooked the absentee ballots for such a strange outcome.

Because of this rather than despite it, the Post’s sources say, Harris sought out Dowless for his 2018 campaign. Harris reached out to Dowless before getting involved with the consultancy Red Dome, through whose offices Dowless ended up getting paid:

A year later, they said, when Harris resolved to run for Congress again, the candidate personally directed the hiring of Dowless, an adept field operative and Bladen County native who had helped deliver that unusual result in 2016. …

Harris decided to hire Dowless before he brought on Red Dome in June 2017, according three people familiar with early campaign deliberations. And he decided to hire him despite warnings about Dowless’s criminal record and Dowless’s own public testimony describing questionable election tactics.

Harris has denied knowing anything about Dowless’ operation, but investigators aren’t so sure:

State and local investigators say that whether Harris knew that his campaign may have engaged in improper tactics has become a focus of the expanding probes into whether election irregularities affected the 9th District election, in which Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes.

All of this gives a much clearer picture as to why Republicans reversed course this week in North Carolina’s state legislature. Initially, a bill to require a fresh primary if the election board threw out the results had stalled in the GOP-controlled legislature, in deference to Harris. On Wednesday, Republicans suddenly pushed the bill through on a vote strong enough for an override if Democratic governor Roy Cooper decides to veto it. Politico suspects that the GOP is preparing to dump Harris, who would end up on the ballot under current state law:

The legislation is an admission that many state Republicans are eager to cut ties with Harris, who defeated GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger in a primary earlier this year, amid mounting revelations countering Harris’ account that he didn’t know anything about Dowless’ work during the election. It’s unclear who else might run on the Republican side, though Pittenger’s name has been floated. But Republicans fear that Harris’ candidacy has been tainted badly enough that he would lose to McCready, and more unflattering information could come out when the board of elections holds its hearing on the fraud allegations.

“They’re getting their ducks in a row for what could be a really terrible situation,” said Patrick Sebastian, a Republican strategist in North Carolina and nephew of former GOP Gov. Pat McCrory. “I think it’s smart. It’s smart to go ahead and prepare for the worst.”

On Tuesday, Republicans had pulled the measure to hold a new primary from a larger elections bill, citing a lack of support. But that night, the ABC affiliate in Charlotte surfaced a photo of Harris and Dowless together, and by Wednesday morning, the language mandating a new primary had been added back into the lame-duck legislation later passed by GOP legislators.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has yet to sign the bill, but Republicans have the votes to override Cooper if he were to veto it.

Cooper might not veto the bill at all. Some North Carolina Democrats supported the legislation as a fair-elections issue, with lots of confidence that Dan McCready would still win the seat:

State Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat who supported the bill that would attach the new primary to a new general election, said the party was prepared to rally behind McCready should the board follow through as he expected and ultimately call for a second vote.

“In backing Dan (McCready) and on insisting that all the votes count and that we have a thoroughly legal, aboveboard process that helps restore our confidence in voting, the party has taken the right steps to get here,” Woodard said. “If we’re moving toward a March primary, and an election sometime in the spring, I’m confident our party will do that.”

After what happened in NC-09, Democrats have to think they’d have won that seat without Dowless’ intervention. Now that it’s been exposed, they have even more reason to think that voters will punish the GOP for it. Why not have a full do-over under those circumstances — and better yet, ensure that state law recognizes the need for such under circumstances such as these? It’s both the smart and right thing to do for everyone, and don’t think voters won’t notice it.

Jazz Shaw Jul 06, 2022 9:01 AM ET