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Mark Harris wins Republican primary, completing his political comeback in the 8th District

Man speaks at podium
Steve Harrison
Mark Harris speaks at his Super Tuesday victory party on March 5, 2024.

Longtime pastor Mark Harris completed a political comeback Tuesday, five years after his earlier win was thrown out in a fraud-tainted race that ended up being one of the only congressional do-overs in U.S. history.

Harris squeaked out a victory, with 30.44% of votes cast — just above the 30% threshold to avoid a runoff. His next-closest opponent in the splintered field of six candidates drew 27%.

The 8th Congressional District stretches from suburban Mecklenburg County and stretches east to Robeson County. It's heavily Republican, and the winner of the Republican primary is virtually assured to win the general election in November.

There were six Republican candidates in the race: Harris, state Rep. John Bradford, former Union County Commissioner Allen Baucom, Cabarrus County real estate agent Leigh Brown, former Naval officer and author Don Brown and Republican activist Chris Maples.

Before and during his earlier runs, Harris was a longtime Charlotte pastor, leading First Baptist Church. He built a base in Republican politics, inviting national figures like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to his church.

In 2018, he appeared to narrowly win the race for the 9th District, which covered much of what's now the 8th District, by 905 votes against Democrat Dan McCready.

But ballot fraud allegations soon emerged in Bladen County, on the district's eastern edge. It turned out that an operative hired by Harris' campaign, McCrae Dowless, had collected absentee ballots from voters, which is illegal in North Carolina. Some people said they had been paid to collect unsealed, incomplete absentee ballots for Dowless.

The 2019 investigatory hearing by the state Board of Elections was explosive. Harris' son, a federal prosecutor, testified that he had warned his father against hiring Dowless. At one point, Harris' lawyers stopped him from testifying, worried that he might perjure himself.

And in a dramatic denouement, Harris called from the witness stand for a new election because of the apparent fraud.

The state board agreed and ordered a new contest. Harris declined to run again, saying he had two strokes. He was never charged criminally. Dowless died before he could be tried.

Republican Dan Bishop — who is now running for North Carolina attorney general — went on to win the 9th District seat in the special election.

Harris was effectively exiled to political wilderness, rarely heard from.

All that history made his celebration in Indian Trail a stunning moment.

"This has all turned out to be in many ways a David and Goliath moment," he said. "Because I found myself in the midst of this campaign out there working and yet all of the forces that could possibly be arranged were working against us. And one of the things that I think is so fascinating in this victory tonight is the word repudiation."

Harris was referring to a deluge of negative ads against him by conservative Super PACs who blamed him for the scandal. He said the TV commercials and mailers were full of "lies and misstatements."

In the intervening years, Harris has changed his description of the ballot fraud episode. Now the pastor of a Mooresville church, he said during the campaign that he made a mistake calling for a new election, and that the 2018 election was stolen from him.

Two of his opponents this year, Baucom and Bradord, each spent $1 million of their own money.

They finished second and third.

Harris’ campaign said it spent $400,000.

But he had campaigned in many of the same counties southeast of Charlotte in 2018 and drew on his religious affiliation.

"When you have pastors that are willing to stand in the pulpit and call it for what it for what it is — that comes from relationships. That are willing speak up and stand up and not allow the smears the lies to take root. That comes from relationships," he said.

Harris is heavily favored over Democrat Justin Dues in November.

"I wasn’t getting in here to relitigate 2018. All the media in here wanted to litigate 2018. But tonight the people of the 8th district said we are willing to stand with Mark Harris," he said.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.