North Carolina’s election fraud scandal has both parties planning for another campaign

Leaders from both parties have all but publicly agreed that a new election is necessary, but they are pursuing much different paths to winning it.Democrats are zeroing in on Republican nominee Mark Harris' ties to operative at the center of the alleged election fraud, demanding Harris personally address the depth of their relationship, while escalating nationwide fundraising appeals to back their candidate, Dan McCready. Republicans have sought to nudge Harris from the stage, most clearly by moving to mandate a new primary in the case a new general election is called, and by suggesting — as one senior party official did to CNN — that the mess has rendered him damaged political goods.On Thursday night, The Washington Post added to those doubts with a report that Harris decided to hire Dowless earlier in the campaign than had been previously known — and in defiance of warnings about his criminal background and rumors of shady tactics.The decision to re-run the midterm race, which Harris initially appeared to have won by a slim margin in November, ultimately rests with the State Board of Elections, which is overseeing an investigation into allegations of an absentee ballot fraud operation directed by an operative on the payroll of a firm hired by Harris. In North Carolina and around the country, Democrats are rallying around McCready ahead of the board's as-yet-unscheduled evidentiary hearing, sending out calls for campaign cash and, at a press conference in Raleigh earlier this week, hammering Harris over his refusal to explain the extent of his relationship with the operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Tammy Baldwin have also asked supporters to donate to McCready.Harris has not spoken publicly since last Friday, when he denied in a taped statement having any prior knowledge of misconduct committed on his behalf. Dowless previously denied any wrongdoing to the Charlotte Observer and has not responded to repeated requests for comment from CNN.With the affidavits piling up and elections board probe potentially widening, Republicans fearful that the scandal has made Harris effectively unelectable and vulnerable to still more unsavory revelations, are both in the media and through their legislative actions moving to nudge him off the field.On Wednesday, the North Carolina state legislature, which is controlled by a lame duck Republican supermajority, passed a bill with Democratic support that would require any call for a new general election to also include a second primary. For the GOP, that means a chance for Republicans like Rep. Robert Pittenger or, according to some rumors, former Gov. Pat McCrory, to challenge Harris and potentially prevent him from being re-nominated.It is unclear whether Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will sign the Republican bill."North Carolinians deserve honest and fair elections and the Governor is reviewing this legislation carefully," said Ford Porter, a spokesperson for Cooper.Republican leaders have stopped short of calling on Harris to seek a legal avenue for exiting the race entirely, but one senior state GOP official told CNN the Charlotte-based pastor's odds are getting longer."There is a growing realization of whatever the final facts are and irrespective of their personal affection for Mr. Harris — he is facing an insurmountable political problem that could have a major impact on the party," the official said, before questioning Harris' long spell of public silence: "One taped statement and no interviews in 14 days? That is a death wish in a political situation like this."Harris has not responded to repeated requests for comment from CNN. Republicans might be souring on Harris, but they aren't about to cede the 9th District seat. Two GOP state lawmakers on Thursday acknowledged the overwhelming evidence of fraud, but argued that the problem affected voters of all stripes — and should not be viewed in through a partisan lens. (There are no credible allegations of fraud or misconduct against the Democrat McCready's campaign.) In response to a fundraising email sent out Thursday afternoon by the North Carolina Democratic Party, which is seeking to frame the ongoing scandal as a swindle perpetrated by state Republicans known for "passing monstrous voter suppression laws to rigging our maps," GOP state Sen. Dan Bishop lashed out and accused Democrats of seeking to make political hay out of a "very serious issue.""The gall, I mean it really does take brass ones, to go out and run fundraising drives alleging that this is a Republican thing," Bishop told CNN, "and of course exploiting as an opportunist the situation that is emerging driven by a media frenzy."Asked if he had confidence in the state elections board, Bishop suggested it could be compromised by the ascent of a Democrat to its top position, saying the investigation "ought to be a fair process and those who are in positions like the Board of Elections must set aside their partisanship and proceed in a way that's fair."State Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat who supported the bill that would attach the new primary to a new general election, said the party was prepared to rally behind McCready should the board follow through as he expected and ultimately call for a second vote."In backing Dan (McCready) and on insisting that all the votes count and that we have a thoroughly legal, aboveboard process that helps restore our confidence in voting, the party has taken the right steps to get here," Woodard said. "If we're moving toward a March primary, and an election sometime in the spring, I'm confident our party will do that."

CNN's Daniella Diaz, Ryan Nobles and Noah Gray contributed to this report

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