ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C. -- A ballot-fraud scandal that brought down a Republican candidate and led North Carolina to order a do-over congressional election could give the Democrats a strong shot at taking back a seat that has been held by the GOP since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.
Democrat Dan McCready has a head start in fundraising and name recognition, and the allegations of ballot tampering have cast a shadow over the Republican Party that could help him win in the deeply conservative and mostly rural 9th Congressional District.
But there are also fears that the scandal could cut both ways, with fatigue and disillusionment over the electoral system keeping some voters home.
"It could be a lot of folks is not going to vote. Period," said Glendell Robinson, a Democrat who plans to vote. He said he has never seen anything like the scandal, having lived all of his 78 years in Bladen County, and hopes others will be able to overcome fears that their votes won't count.
The new contest was ordered by the state elections board last month after it concluded that GOP candidate Mark Harris' lead of 905 votes out of about 280,000 cast in November was tainted by evidence of ballot fraud by political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless and others working on Harris' behalf. Dowless was arrested Wednesday on conspiracy and other charges involving the 2016 general election and 2018 primary.
According to testimony at a board hearing, Dowless and others illegally collected other people's mail-in absentee ballots and in some cases forged signatures and filled in votes for local candidates. It is against the law in North Carolina for anyone but the voter or a close relative to handle a ballot.
Harris, who has denied any wrongdoing, said he won't run again. And with two other big names, former Gov. Pat McCrory and ex-9th District Rep. Robert Pittenger, deciding not to seek the House seat either, McCready sits in a good position, even in a district that has been in GOP hands since 1963 and was won by Donald Trump by 12 percentage points in 2016.
"For right now he would definitely have to be looked at as the front-runner," Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer said.
Activists from both parties expect heightened national attention and lots of campaign money flowing into the off-year race. The district includes part of Charlotte and stretches through several rural counties along the South Carolina line. It also reaches close to the Army's sprawling Fort Bragg, where McCready's Iraq War military service makes him an attractive candidate.
The chairman of the Bladen County commissioners, Charles Ray Peterson, said the scandal has disillusioned voters, but he thinks they will take part in the election if they believe the state has rooted out the fraud.
"We've kind of been knocked down, but we want to get back up," he said. "And that's the reason the state needs to come in here and investigate and make sure that we get to the bottom of all this voting fraud."
He also said the scrutiny has been unfairly one-sided, citing allegations of ballot irregularities that may have benefited Democrats.
Elsewhere in the district, Union County resident Kevin Stewart expressed a similar sentiment, laying out a potential strategy for Republicans to appeal to voters.
Dowless "played both sides of the street," Stewart said, alluding to the way the political operative worked previously for at least one Democrat. "I think the hatchet is going to fall, quite frankly, on both sides of political aisle, and that's a good thing."
Stony Rushing, a Union County commissioner who is among at least three Republicans running for the seat and is Harris' choice, sounded geared up to portray Harris as a victim of the 9th District probe. Rushing called the board hearing "disgusting" and unfair to Harris.
Others suggested that a clean break from Harris and any tinge of wrongdoing is necessary.
Republican former state Sen. Tommy Tucker, who is "95 percent" certain he will run, said a "fresh start for the district would be in order."
Larry Shaheen, a Charlotte GOP consultant, said Republicans should focus squarely on McCready and try to link him to liberal Democrats in Congress.
Veteran Democratic consultant Brad Crone likewise warned against making the race all about the fraud probe, saying voters are "going to be worried about prescription drug prices; they're going to be worried about jobs and the economy."
For his part, Dennis Rollins, a Republican in Union County, emphasized voters' dilemma by vowing not to cast his ballot for McCready — McCready is in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "pocket," he said — while also expressing disgust about Republicans' role in the scandal.
"They've let the people of the 9th District down. And I don't know how they'll redeem themselves," he said. "I think everybody is just sick of politics."
Robertson reported from Raleigh, North Carolina.