Opinion

Why are top-tier Republican candidates saying no in the 9th District?

Mark Harris calls for new election in 9th district

Mark Harris called for a new election in the disputed 9th District on Thursday afternoon, Feb. 21, 2019. He said he suffered two strokes in January and is “struggling” to get through the hearing, now in its fourth day.
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Mark Harris called for a new election in the disputed 9th District on Thursday afternoon, Feb. 21, 2019. He said he suffered two strokes in January and is “struggling” to get through the hearing, now in its fourth day.

We have a new primary and general election schedule for the 9th Congressional District. Now where are the Republican candidates?

The state Board of Elections voted Monday to hold a 9th District primary on May 14 and general election on Sept. 10. Democrat Dan McCready already has raised his hand to run, but what’s most notable on the GOP side isn’t who might face him, but who has said no thanks. Robert Pittenger, who most recently held the seat, isn’t interested. Neither is former Charlotte City Council member Kenny Smith or Union County GOP chair Dan Barry. Former NC Gov. Pat McCrory made a big show of his announcement, but it too was a no.

Candidates still have 10 days to declare, and it’s likely at least a few lesser known Republicans will file. That could include state Sen. Dan Bishop, who didn’t deny Monday that he’s thinking about it. Bishop, however, is the architect of HB2, and he invested in a web site that was commonly known to be linked to white supremacy. Democrats nationally would leap at the opportunity to paint Bishop as the ugly representative of GOP ideals, a prospect that surely makes Republican officials uneasy. Former Mecklenburg Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, whose campaign committee filed with the Federal Election Commission Tuesday, brings a much more solid resume but little name recognition outside of south Charlotte.

So what happened to the top tier candidates? Smith cited family and work, and state Republicans think McCrory has his eyes on the bigger prize of a U.S. Senate seat. But each also faced another calculation: Running for a congressional seat is a significant investment of time and money, and what should be an alluring district for Republicans is not nearly as much so right now.

The structural challenges alone are daunting. New GOP candidates face a compressed election schedule, which means they have to quickly raise money and build a campaign from scratch just to win a primary and face a Democrat who already has a fully operative campaign that’s flush with cash. The GOP nominee also will face a district where Democrats are clearly energized to turn out, and internal polling suggests that the Bladen County absentee ballot scandal has left Republicans less than enthused.

Also, while time might not be on the GOP side now, in short time it could be. The 9th District seat will be up for grabs again in 2020, and oddly, McCready might be more vulnerable as an incumbent than he is at the moment. Republicans were frustrated that Mark Harris was unable to pin McCready down as a liberal in the conservative 9th District, and a short election leaves little time for a new candidate to do better. But while candidate McCready has been elusive in declaring where he stands on issues, an elected McCready won’t have that luxury. He’ll have to vote, and he’ll likely vote regularly with Democrats in the U.S. House. The better strategy for a Republican in the 9th might be to sit this election out and let McCready do your 2020 work for you.

All of which, however, leaves 9th District voters with weaker choices. The blame for that lies with Harris and NCGOP leaders, who could have called for a new election when significant fraud was revealed months ago. Instead they denied and obfuscated. They left 9th District Republicans with a damaged GOP brand and a stacked deck for the Democrat. They did voters - and their party - no favors.

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