CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Election meddling needn’t be a foreign power planting fictions on Facebook and courting the ragtag disciples of a real estate magnate.
It can be local. It can be low-tech: going door to door to round up and forge absentee ballots in a candidate’s favor. That’s what apparently happened last fall in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, in one of the most egregious instances of federal election fraud in anyone’s memory.
Results initially showed that the Republican, an evangelical minister named Mark Harris, beat the Democrat, a Marine veteran named Dan McCready, by just 905 votes. But then questions about Harris’ operation emerged, and state officials saw enough evidence of illegality to take the step last month of ordering a whole new election for later this year.
It’s an extraordinary sequence of events, all the more so because McCready was a first-time candidate driven by a degree of patriotism and idealism I don’t encounter in politicians all that often. He’s 35 but could pass for 10 years younger, with a face that’s almost a caricature of Howdy Doody wholesomeness. He and his wife, Laura, a lawyer, have four kids, the oldest of whom is 8, and two Labradoodles.
I spent some time with him in North Carolina last May, before this unholy mess, and kept in touch through occasional phone calls as the election drew closer and professional handicappers gave him even odds or better to wrest a House seat that Republicans had held for 55 years. He was pumped.
He was less so when I reconnected with him here in Charlotte recently and, over several hours of conversation, took stock of that patriotism and idealism, noting that his campaign mantra – county over party – exhorted Americans to rise above precisely the kind of vicious partisanship that infected his race.
“There’s this big tension that I feel,” he told me. “I will always be someone who genuinely wants to work with both sides.”
But when one side behaves despicably, he asked, how do you not call it and them out as passionately as you can? How do you keep the faith? “The way these two things come together – it’s muddy,” he said.
He had known, he said, that Republican officials in North Carolina “cheat to draw the district lines.” In fact, their gerrymandering was deemed unconstitutional by a panel of federal judges last year and is now being examined by the Supreme Court. But he has learned that on top of that, “They cheat to steal votes. And now they’re sending emails attacking Democrats, saying Democrats forced a new election. It’s like zero moral compass – literally zero. I didn’t expect that.”
President Donald Trump was asked late last month about what went down in the 9th District, which has led to the indictment of an operative who worked for Harris, Leslie Dowless, on felony charges of obstruction of justice and unlawful possession of absentee ballots. He responded that all fraud was bad and pivoted into his lament about an epidemic of illegal voting by unauthorized immigrants. “This didn’t fit the narrative,” McCready said.
What an optimism-straining odyssey he has been on. He belonged to the bevy of military veterans who ran for office for the first time in 2018, and he stood out even among them for his avoidance of divisive issues, his insistence on the possibility of post-partisan consensus, his buoyancy. He’d been a Boy Scout in his teens. A chess champion, too. His dad, a history buff, made him memorize the Gettysburg Address in the seventh grade.
At Duke University, he majored in economics and thought about a career in consulting or finance. But 9/11 had happened when he was a freshman, America was fighting wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan and he was struck by how few of his classmates went into the military. He felt an obligation to serve and “figured if I was going to do it, go all the way.” So he joined the Marines.
He gave them four years, including seven months in Iraq, where he at one point had a religious awakening, “became overwhelmed with joy and really felt God’s presence,” and was baptized by the chaplain for his battalion with water from the Euphrates River.
Later, he went to Harvard Business School, and later still he and a friend started a firm that rounded up investment for solar farms. “I was building a thriving business that helped make our state No. 2 in solar power,” he said.
But after seeing how ugly the 2016 presidential campaign was, how nastily divided the country had become and how many politicians seemed to be ethically unmoored, he decided on a congressional bid. Democratic leaders quickly recognized him as the kind of candidate who could compete in a purplish state and help them win the House majority.
McCready loved campaigning – I could hear it in his voice. He loved the excuse it gave him to mingle with a range of people he might never otherwise meet and to make the less fortunate among them feel seen and heard. He loved the rigor of the trail, the way it tapped into and tested his reserves of energy. He loved the learning curve. He loved the way he got better and better at his stump speech, until it was fluid and reflexive.
On Election Day, he was confident that he’d win, though he sensed it would be a squeaker. It was, so much so that he didn’t concede to Harris until 24 hours after the polls closed. He was crestfallen, and Laura, who’d been wowed by how tirelessly he’d worked, took it even harder. “I was surprised by how bad I felt – physically – about it,” she told me. “I felt like I was punched in the gut.” They took the kids to Disney World, for the kind of family time they’d missed out on during the race.
But that was hardly that. Over the next weeks, there were louder and louder rumblings about something amiss in two of the district’s eight counties, where the count of absentee ballots didn’t make sense. One of those counties, Bladen, was the only one where the majority of those ballots went to Harris. In late November, the state board of elections announced that it would not yet certify the results, pending further investigation. McCready was shocked.
And he remained so as he learned more about what investigators were looking into and how long it had been ignored.
Dowless had been suspected in years past of tampering with absentee ballots. The executive director of the state Republican Party had been warned about Dowless’ alleged schemes but nonetheless let Harris hire him. What’s more, Harris had done so in a manner apparently meant to avoid detection, having a third party pay him.
As this and more came to light, Republicans in North Carolina and in Washington were either silent or accusatory, saying that Democrats were sore losers trying to overturn an election they’d narrowly “lost” – though that loss was very much in question. Meantime, many Democrats shrugged, figuring that dirty tricks were part and parcel of local politics, they were hard to prove, and the board of elections would never go so far as to throw out the vote count, which is pretty much unheard-of.
“There was this air of fatalism,” Aaron Simpson, the director of communications for the McCready campaign, recalled. Laura McCready described the mood as: “There’s fraud in Bladen County, and the sky is blue.”
Dan McCready said that he was also tempted to shrug, given his exhaustion and the unlikelihood of any remedy. But he was too incensed. “This is our most sacred right in America – to vote,” he said. “It’s a right that people have fought and died for.” To have it corrupted like this was wrong.
So he and his aides joined other concerned North Carolinians in rounding up affidavits, pressuring investigators, guiding reporters. That effort came to a climax with hearings last month during which Harris’ sworn testimony – that he knew nothing of Dowless’ shady reputation – was contradicted under oath by his own son, who also made clear that his father had hidden emails from investigators. Disgraced and reeling, Harris claimed memory problems, reversed course and himself insisted on a new election.
He’s not running, but nearly a dozen other Republicans are, and whoever wins their primary will face off against McCready in September or November. In the meantime, the district hasn’t been represented in the House since January. It’s not at all clear that McCready will win, but it is clear that local Republicans, far from being abashed, will brand him a troublemaker.
If McCready does prevail, it will be as a changed man. “Why did it take a big congressional race and a candidate and a team to get so angry for this whole thing to come out?” he asked. “This is why voters think all politicians are a bunch of crooks. I bet if you polled and you asked, ‘Are politicians a bunch of crooks in it for themselves, bought, sold?’ you’d get a vast majority of people who believe that – about Democrats and Republicans.”
I can’t imagine the McCready I met nearly a year ago sounding that bitter. Back then, he conceded, “I didn’t realize how bad it was.”
So why does he still want this House seat, and from where does he draw hope that he can make a difference? Well, from the fact he did make a difference: There’s no telling if, without his persistence, Dowless would have been indicted and the election nullified. In the end, the system did work. And if McCready does get to Washington, he can lend all that energy of his to the cause of election integrity and voting rights, which many Democrats are prioritizing.
“This probably sounds, like, totally cheesy,” he said, “but I just love this country, and we’re not going to fix what’s wrong with it until we get better people there.”
Amen to that. And good luck to him.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.