Republicans in Western North Carolina are eating their young.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) spent this past weekend denying charges, which first aired on a local TV station, that former campaign aide Michael Aaron Lay committed voter fraud in a primary runoff three years ago that McHenry won by 86 votes.
The two-term lawmaker scoffs at the charges and claims Lay is nothing more than a political whipping boy being punished by his detractors.
“Aaron is an ethical law student whom I know to be a good Christian and law-abiding citizen,” said McHenry, who at age 31 is the youngest Member of Congress. “It’s unfortunate that political opponents chose to target this young man in order to attack me.”
Well-placed political operatives in the 10th district agree with McHenry that his camp’s current woes likely are politically motivated. But retribution in this case, they claim, is an inside job, political payback three years in the making by disgruntled local Republicans, who are split on the up-and-coming GOP bomb-thrower who has become so familiar to C-SPAN viewers.
As a result, McHenry could wind up facing a Republican primary challenge in 2008.
While running to replace retiring Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) in a 2004 four-way Republican primary, McHenry, then a North Carolina state House legislator, made a lasting impression on local Republicans such as David Boone, a grocer and former local GOP official who writes a local political news- letter.
Boone said at first glance he didn’t give McHenry much of a fighting chance against David Huffman, a local sheriff with decades of experience.
“I thought here’s a guy who is 28 or 29 years old, has one term in the Legislature; a young guy, trying to get his name out there,” Boone said of McHenry, who beat Huffman by just 86 votes in the GOP primary runoff before decisively winning the general election.
“I’ll tell you what, when he ran in that primary, there was nobody who outworked him. He really gets out there … and hustles,” he said.
But McHenry’s aggressive approach left some Republicans steaming. Neil Moore, the Republican Party chairman in Gaston County, said the race was so divisive that Huffman refused to shake McHenry’s hand when it was called.
Moore also recalled a local GOP convention a few years ago where McHenry addressed the local party faithful.
“As a habit, people applaud their sitting Congressman,” Moore said. “[Huffman] remained seated. The whole time McHenry spoke, he refused to look at him. He stared down at the floor the entire time.”
“These boys haven’t outgrown this,” Moore continued. “In these three years, there appears to be a lingering bitterness from the Huffman supporters.”
A supporter whom some link to Huffman is Donnie Young, a former Republican Party county chairman who runs the North Carolina Christian Coalition and is a possible challenger to McHenry in next year’s primary. He also may be the genesis of McHenry’s current political headache.
On his Web site, donnieyoung2008.com, Young provides a play-by-play of his complaints against Lay during the past three years.
Young claims the campaign aide actually was a resident of Tennessee and was only crashing on McHenry’s couch when he likely cast one of the 86 winning votes in McHenry’s runoff victory.
“Can someone come to North Carolina from out of state or move from out of district for the temporary purpose of assisting in a campaign and claim residency in order to vote?” Young wrote on his Web site. “If it is acceptable for campaign workers to move temporarily into a district and register to vote then this needs to be communicated to every one who is running for public office so that there is an ‘even playing field.’
“If it is not acceptable then it is a matter for the district attorney’s office to determine if this conduct constitutes ‘fraudulent’ registration … a felony in North Carolina,” Young concluded.
What appears certain is that Lay did live with McHenry and other campaign employees in the 10th district during the campaign and listed his parent’s Tennessee address on his payroll documents, which are typically filed when an individual is first hired. But with the Gaston County district attorney’s office keeping silent on the particulars of the case, little else regarding Lay’s status was known by press time Monday.
Some insiders claim that although the feud began with Huffman, it accelerated when Locke Bell (R), Gaston County’s district attorney, took office in January. They say Bell’s decision to pursue Lay’s case reflects a personal vendetta. McHenry’s campaign supporters, they claim, campaigned for Bell’s Republican primary opponent last year, a favor for which McHenry — through Lay — is now being held accountable.
Bell laughs at the suggestion. He said he is not settling a political score and that the two charges of voter fraud against Lay were nothing more than picking up where his predecessor left off.
“I inherited an investigation,” Bell said. “In 2004, I supported McHenry. I was one of his big contributors.”