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With 2020 around the corner, North Carolina special election isn’t just about 9th District

Tar Heel State is a must-win for Republicans in 2020 presidential and Senate contests

Baptist minister Mark Harris (left), who is seeking election in North Carolina’s 9th district, and Rep. Ted Budd , R-N.C., are introduced by President Donald Trump during an October campaign rally in Charlotte. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images file photo)
Baptist minister Mark Harris (left), who is seeking election in North Carolina’s 9th district, and Rep. Ted Budd , R-N.C., are introduced by President Donald Trump during an October campaign rally in Charlotte. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images file photo)

What may be the most high-profile special election of 2019 is likely to attract national attention as a harbinger of things to come in a competitive state next year. 

The North Carolina State Board of Elections hasn’t yet set a date for the special primary or general election in the 9th District. But the contest is already taking shape with a burgeoning field of prospective GOP candidates in a race with potential consequences for next year’s presidential and Senate elections in the Tar Heel State. (House contests are more unpredictable since the North Carolina congressional map may change ahead of 2020.)

Beyond the scandal and family drama that’s already made this seat interesting to watch, a special election here will likely generate similar hype and outside spending to the other isolated special elections of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Trump carried the 9th District by about 12 points in 2016. But the November midterm result that got thrown out last week was much closer— Republican Mark Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the special election a Toss-up.

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National fears

In a nationalized political environment, the outcome would contribute to the narrative about North Carolina heading into 2020, when GOP Sen. Thom Tillis is up for his first re-election. Inside Elections rates the Senate race Tilts Republican. The demographically shifting state is also a must-win for Trump, who carried it by less than 4 points in 2016.

Republicans fear a divisive and messy 9th District primary in a high-profile special election could jeopardize the seat and complicate their efforts in other federal races next year.

“The only question is if Republicans are going to continue with a fiasco in the primary process or get focused on circling the wagons and winning elections in 2020,” said Paul Shumaker, a North Carolina-based consultant who worked for former 9th District Rep. Robert Pittenger and also counts Tillis among his clients. 

Democrats have the advantage of time and money. McCready has been consistently fundraising — raising more than $500,000 by the end of 2018 — well before the new election was called for.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory’s decision not to run for the GOP nomination takes a big name off the table, but that still leaves plenty of Republicans testing the waters, eager to have their names mentioned.

“To those who say I’m the strongest candidate to win this District 9 race, I don’t disagree with you,” McCrory said Monday. But he noted that there are other qualified candidates. “This is a Republican district that we should not lose regardless of who wins any primary,” he said, adding that he’ll help any candidate, including Harris.

Members of the North Carolina General Assembly don’t have to give up their seats to run, so there’s little risk to jumping into a special election primary this year. It remains to be seen whether the White House intervenes to back a candidate and help settle the field. 

Familiar faces

There’s precedent for wide-open primaries in North Carolina. Seventeen Republicans competed in 2016 for the newly drawn 13th District. With the help of the Club for Growth’s PAC, now-Rep. Ted Budd won the nomination, but with just 20 percent of the vote. (The General Assembly did away with its runoff provision when it approved new maps that year.) Under current law, a candidate must earn 30 percent of the vote to avoid a primary runoff. 

Some familiar GOP names could still throw their hats in the ring. Pittenger, who lost to Harris in last year’s primary, previously said he wouldn’t run, but he may be reconsidering based on the encouragement he’s received after last week’s hearings. Besides McCrory, he’s one of the few Republicans with the name recognition to clear the field. 

The former congressman could distance himself from the ethical cloud over Republicans in the 9th District by arguing that he was also a victim of the absentee ballot scheme run by a contractor for the Harris team. Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. was working for Harris during the 2018 primary, when his candidate defeated Pittenger by just 828 votes. Data from the State Board of Elections showed Harris winning a suspiciously high percentage of the absentee votes in Bladen County.

But Pittenger only narrowly defeated Harris in the 2016 primary, suggesting he may have some weak spots with the GOP base. He’s not known to be an aggressive campaigner and has had his own ethical baggage. The FBI closed an investigation into him and his former company without filing any charges. Pittenger ended 2018 with just under $2,000 on hand and $592,000 in debt to himself.

Harris is thinking about running again, too, although he could still get caught up in criminal prosecutions related to the election fraud. 

Even if Harris didn’t know about the unlawful absentee ballot scheme, his pleading ignorance in the face of warnings from his own son could cause voters to question his competence. And after blaming his inability to finish Thursday’s testimony on health reasons, he may have difficulty convincing voters he’s fit enough for a competitive congressional contest. He ended 2018 with $19,000 in the bank but may have since dipped into those coffers to pay for legal bills not footed by the national party.  

Late last year, the GOP-controlled General Assembly overrode the governor’s veto of legislation requiring a new primary for any new election. The alternative would have been rematch in which Harris remained the nominee. McCready’s lawyer Marc Elias has left open the door to challenging the requirement for a new primary.

The other special elections happening around the country this year (so far) aren’t likely to attract nearly as much national attention. Pennsylvania’s 12th District and North Carolina’s 3rd District are both safe Republican seats.