RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Republican candidate whose narrow lead in a North Carolina congressional race was thrown out because of suspicions of ballot fraud announced Tuesday he will not run in the newly ordered do-over election, saying he needs surgery late next month.
The withdrawal of Mark Harris could help Republicans try to keep the competitive 9th District seat by enabling the GOP to distance itself from the scandal.
The Harris announcement focused on his health problems without mentioning the absentee ballot scandal. He didn't say what kind of surgery was planned.
Harris had led Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes after November's election, but the outcome was never certified. State election officials grew concerned about reports that an operative working for Harris was illegally tampering with absentee ballots.
A hearing last week into the allegations took an unexpected turn when Harris said while testifying that he agreed a new election should be called. He gave up attempts to be declared winner, citing a blood infection that required hospitalization and led to two strokes. It is unclear when the strokes occurred.
Shortly thereafter, the elections board ordered a new contest . No election date has been set.
On Tuesday, Harris encouraged supporters to rally around Stony Rushing, a commissioner in Union County in the Charlotte suburbs. Rushing would "stand firm on so many of the issues that concern us" such as 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. In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Rushing said he attended last week's hearing and was "just disgusted" by how Harris was treated. He called into question the credibility of some witnesses alleging absentee ballot fraud in the hearing that led to the election board's decision.
"It was disgusting that we had to go through the whole thing," Rushing said.
Former state Sen. Tommy Tucker of Union County has also expressed interest in running, saying in a phone interview that he's "95 percent sure" that he'll run for the seat.
Republican David Blackwelder, a community college police officer who lives outside the 9th District, also announced his candidacy. A candidate isn't required to live within the district boundaries.
Former U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, whom Harris defeated in last May's primary, on Tuesday told the AP it was "good for the country and the party" that Harris wasn't running. Asked why, he said simply: "I think it's just obvious."
Pittenger said he doesn't plan to seek his old job, saying he's involved in conferences on counter-terrorism and security issues.
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.
McCready has 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. His campaign finance report showed McCready raised $487,000 during the final five weeks of 2018.
McCready formally announced his intention to run Friday before several dozen supporters at a brewery in Waxhaw, near Charlotte. He told the crowd that he and his team were going to "knock on every door" in the district to earn votes and to reassure constituents that he's the type of politician who will do the right thing.
Harris struggled during testimony last week over why he prepared for his primary election last year by seeking out Bladen County political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, a convicted felon who had been accused of ballot fraud in the 2016 elections. The state elections board turned over evidence of his 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: 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 generally 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 writers Gary D. Robertson and Jonathan Drew contributed to this report.