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Well-known Republicans steer clear of disputed US House race

February 27, 2019
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FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, file photo, Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina's 9th Congressional race, prepares to testify during the fourth day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh, N.C. Harris, whose narrow lead in the North Carolina congressional race was thrown out because of suspicions of ballot fraud, announced Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, he will not run in the newly ordered do-over election, saying he needs surgery in late March. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, Pool, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Three well-known Republicans are staying out of a North Carolina congressional race that had to be re-run because suspicions of ballot fraud tainted the first try, leaving lesser-known candidates to try to maintain the GOP’s 50-year hold on the seat.

Mark Harris, the apparent winner of the 9th Congressional District race before ballot fraud allegations surfaced, said Tuesday he will not run in the new election the state elections board unanimously ordered last week after an evidentiary hearing. Harris, who was hospitalized last month by a blood infection that led to two strokes, said he needs surgery next month.

He did not mention the absentee ballot scandal.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, whom Harris defeated in May’s Republican primary, told The Associated Press he wouldn’t run to reclaim his old job.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory said Monday he wouldn’t seek the seat. He was previously mayor of Charlotte, a part of which is in the congressional district.

The absence of those proven fundraisers gives lesser-known Republicans the opportunity to vault to Congress. But any GOP candidate who runs will have to steer carefully around the taint left by Harris’ campaign, Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer said.

“I think it certainly opens up an opportunity for somebody that doesn’t have the name recognition,” Bitzer said. “But they have to understand the dynamics of the district, and how are they going to distance themselves from the issues that we’ve just survived.”

Harris had led Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes after November’s election, but the outcome was never certified as state election officials responded to reports that an operative working for Harris was illegally tampering with absentee ballots.

Harris last week stopped a special state elections board hearing by declaring he couldn’t continue to testify, citing confusion and memory problems. He acknowledged there were substantial doubts about the November election’s fairness and reversed his previous calls to be declared the winner.

Shortly after Harris spoke last week, the elections board ordered a new contest . A date for the new election has not been announced.

On Tuesday, Harris encouraged his supporters to rally around Stony Rushing, a local official from the Charlotte suburbs. The Union County commissioner would “stand firm on so many of the issues that concern us, including the issue of life, our national security, and religious freedom,” Harris said.

Rushing, a firing range owner and gun seller, has been a county commissioner off and on since first taking office in 2002. Rushing told The Associated Press in a phone interview he attended last week’s hearing and he questioned the credibility of some witnesses alleging absentee ballot fraud

“It was disgusting that we had to go through the whole thing,” he said.

Former state Sen. Tommy Tucker of Union County said Tuesday he’s “95 percent sure” that he will run for the seat.

McCready announced his intention to run Friday. He had already been assembling a new campaign staff and raising money to run again in the district that stretches from Charlotte through several counties to the east along the South Carolina border. His campaign finance report showed McCready raised $487,000 during the final five weeks of 2018.

It’s not clear how McCready would fare in a low-turnout general election, likely held this summer or fall, in the Republican-leaning district.

It’s also not clear whether the Republican nominee will be marred by his party’s to-the-bitter-end support for Harris, who sought out and signed up to his campaign the Bladen County political operative who had been accused of ballot fraud in the 2016 elections. The state elections board turned over evidence of Leslie McCrae Dowless’ actions in 2017 to federal prosecutors, who took no action.

According to testimony and other findings detailed at the hearing, Dowless conducted an illegal “ballot harvesting” operation in which he and his assistants gathered up absentee ballots from voters by offering to put them in the mail.

Dowless’ workers in rural Bladen County testified that they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates.

It is against the law in North Carolina for anyone other than the voter or a family member to handle someone’s completed ballot.

No criminal charges have been filed in the case . Dowless declined to testify last week after the elections board refused to grant him immunity from prosecution based on what he might say.

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Associated Press writer Jonathan Drew contributed to this report.