From politics to the pulpit and back again: Mark Harris’ rise on the religious right

Before he wanted to be a preacher, Mark Harris wanted to be in politics.

The Winston-Salem native stuffed envelopes for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign when he was 14, then took a bus to the inauguration in Washington, D.C. At 17, he posed on the U.S. Capitol steps with then-Senator Jesse Helms.

“Best wishes to Mark Harris — I’m proud of you!” the senator scrawled on a photo of them. Decades later — long after he heard the call to ministry and answered it — Harris kept that photo in his office at First Baptist Church in Charlotte. It was the distillation of a life that fused the political arena with the pulpit, in which politics and piety have long intersected.

“If good and Godly people stay out of the process because of a fear of what could happen to their reputation,” Harris told the Observer in 2013, when he was running for the U.S. Senate, “then we might as well turn off (America’s) lights.”

Now Harris is at the center of the growing scandal in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District race, with his political opponents trying to make his character an issue. On Nov. 6, he beat Democratic candidate Dan McCready by 905 votes. But now a Bladen County political operative and convicted felon paid by the Harris campaign is accused of illegally gathering absentee ballots.

The N.C. Board of Elections has refused to certify the 9th District results, citing widespread irregularities. It has subpoenaed the Harris campaign and its main consultant, Red Dome Group, and is investigating what it calls “potentially criminal absentee ballot activities.”

Harris has denied wrongdoing and said he was personally unaware of any illegal activity by anyone working on behalf of his campaign. But the Washington Post reported last week that three unnamed individuals familiar with the campaign said Harris directed the hiring of McCrae Dowless even though he was warned that the Bladen County operative may have engaged in what the Post called “questionable tactics to deliver votes.”

In a recent video, Harris said he’s open to a new election if the outcome could have been tainted by fraud. The elections board plans to hold a hearing Jan. 11 and could order a new race.

Last week, in a move that some have interpreted as a way to start fresh with a GOP candidate other than Harris, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill that would require a new wide-open primary if the state elections board orders a new election. In Washington, top Democrats poised to take charge of the U.S. House in January said they won’t seat Harris if he shows up to represent the 9th district.

Harris has said he is cooperating with the investigation, which is intensifying. He couldn’t be reached for an interview. But he told Observer news partner WBTV on Friday that it was his decision to hire Dowless and that he believed the Bladen politico was operating within the bounds of the law to encourage absentee voters.

Asked if he had indications Dowless was doing anything illegal, Harris told WBTV: “No, absolutely not.”

Carter Wrenn, a GOP strategist who formerly ran Helms’ political operation, said the key question now is: “What did Mark Harris know and when did he know it?”

“If he knew something, he’s got a problem,” Wrenn said.

‘Calling from the Holy Spirit’

For Harris, 52, the victory that appears to be slipping from his grasp is a bitter capstone to nearly a decade spent seeking power. He’s run for federal office three times, raising about $3.3 million for his campaigns, in addition to millions spent on his behalf by outside groups.

Harris has courted top Republican politicians, hosting them at First Baptist Church. A cavalcade of prominent candidates, from Rick Santorum to Ted Cruz to Mike Huckabee, have spoken at the uptown Charlotte church, where Harris has also held events like the 2014 “Star-Spangled Sunday,” to celebrate the anthem and promote a return to “traditional” morality and values in the U.S.

During a press conference Former Governor Mike Huckabee (center, at podium), speaks to the media, (back L-R), Sen. Ted Cruz, Mark Harris,senior pastor, First Baptist Church of Charlotte,Tony Perkins,president,Family Research Council (far right). Two possible contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination were in Charlotte on Sept. 14,2014 to headline “Star Spangled Sunday, “ a live national webcast from First Baptist Church of Charlotte. The Rev. Mark Harris, who pastors First Baptist, said the event celebrating the 200th anniversary of the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner. “ Robert Lahser rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

This fall, President Donald Trump visited Charlotte twice to campaign for Harris. The two shared a stage in front of thousands of cheering supporters at Bojangles Arena less than two weeks before the election.

“Mark Harris’ rise is indicative of the modern Republican party and the appeal of evangelical Christians, and the support they give to the Republican party,” said Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer. But he said it’s still unusual for a candidate to rise directly from the evangelical clergy into politics.

The closest comparison might be Huckabee — a longtime Harris supporter who’s campaigned with him multiple times. He was a pastor before winning the Arkansas governorship and launching several presidential runs. In 2010, when he invited Huckabee to speak at First Baptist on July 4, Harris said his example should “inspire and encourage folks.”

Harris has long advocated that Christians involve themselves more deeply in politics.

In 2014, he explained moves like hosting Republican precinct meetings at his church, inviting Huckabee and Santorum to speak and endorsing Republican Supreme Court Justice candidate Paul Newby from the pulpit.

“I have felt it was critically important to have the church engaged in public policy,” Harris said. “Because we have to live by the laws and we ought to have a voice in what those laws say and how those laws are constructed. So I don’t apologize for the church having a seat at the table in the marketplace of ideas.”

He echoed those themes two years later.

“Christian leaders have sat on the sidelines for so long that we find our nation in the state it’s in,” said Harris in 2016, discussing his second run for Congress. “We’ve got to be willing to step into the arena.”

Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, disputed the notion that it was political ambition that prompted Harris to run for office. Rather, he said Harris told him and others that “he felt God calling him to run.”

“He felt a strong calling from the Holy Spirit to leave the church he loved and do public service by running for office,” Land said.

Harris put it a similar way in 2013.

“I think, yes, through a process of prayer and counsel,” Harris said, “I am comfortable in saying that I have felt led in my spirit to do this.”

Mark Harris, right, in a photo with Jesse Helms. On the back of the photo is the following: “U.S. Senate Photograph July 28, 1983.” Observer archives

But just because God may call you to do something, Land said, that doesn’t mean there won’t be obstacles.

“In the Bible, there are a lot of good men who had conflict they had to face,” Land said.

Land said he was with Harris at a recent Christmas party over the weekend. Land said Harris told him and others at the party that he had not done anything wrong and that he hoped investigators would do their work as quickly as possible “so the people of the 9th district have representation.”

Land said Harris and his wife “seem calm, but resolved.”

Gay marriage helped fuel rise

Harris’ rise to statewide prominence began in 2011, when he was elected president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. With a $30 million budget and influence over the state’s biggest religious denomination, the post was a promising launching pad.

But it was a hot-button social issue that really powered the rise of his political career. In 2012, Harris helped lead the fight for Amendment One, the North Carolina measure that affirmed the state ban on gay marriage. He invited Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, to speak at First Baptist, and said the amendment was key to protecting “God’s word” in the state.

“This was an issue of standing on the principle of God’s word that marriage is between one man and one woman, and I believe that message has gotten across,” Harris said after Amendment One passed, 61 to 39 percent. The amendment was overturned by a federal judge in 2014.

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After the Amendment One campaign, Harris turned his sights on political office. He decided to run in the wide-open Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 2014, competing with a field of more than half a dozen candidates by appealing to religious conservatives.

“As a pastor,” Harris said, “I have never shied away from bringing the Bible to the culture.”

Harris also tried to win the support of Tea Party voters. He cited Ted Cruz as his political hero, and campaigned across the state, making appearances before crowds at Baptist churches where he was already a familiar figure. Harris even took a sabbatical from his church duties.

He enlisted former congressman Robin Hayes — now chairman of the N.C. GOP — to co-chair his campaign. But Harris still faced challenges gaining name recognition outside the religious world.

“Mark Harris has not established much of a statewide following,” said John Hood, head of the conservative John Locke Foundation.

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The pastor-turned-politician came in third place during the GOP primary for his first run for office. Harris got almost 18 percent of the vote. Fellow Republican Thom Tillis eventually won the seat.

In 2016, Harris ran again, on a smaller platform — the 9th District. Harris came incredibly close, falling just 134 votes short of beating incumbent Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger in the primary.

In that race, Dowless, the political operative, worked for the third Republican in the race, Todd Johnson. In Bladen County that year, Johnson got 221 absentee votes to 4 for Harris and 1 for Pittenger.

In 2017, Harris left his ministry and turned his full attention to running for office. This time, his campaign hired Dowless.

Harris ran again for the 9th District, beating Pittenger by 828 votes in the 2018 primary. He went on to claim a narrow victory over McCready in what became the most expensive Congressional race in the state. It was widely seen as a referendum on Trump and a prime chance for Democrats to flip a longtime Republican district.

Can he win again?

A new election to fill the 9th District seat looks increasingly likely. Hayes, the NC GOP chairman, has said that if early vote totals were leaked, as an affidavit released by the NC Democratic Party alleges, that alone would justify a new election.

If that happens and Harris runs again, he could face a new set of obstacles. McCready has already charged that Harris “bankrolled” criminal activity, and the taint of being a self-proclaimed man of God who’s now under investigation could linger.

“Democrats may be more tempted to stereotype him as the shady preacher or as a corrupt evangelist,” said David Wasserman, whose job with the Cook Political Report is to monitor and analyze U.S. House races. “He would certainly be a damaged (candidate).”

He said the scandal means McCready would begin as the favorite in any new election.

“Keep in mind that Democrats came awfully close (in November)... Democrats are pretty motivated,” he said.

With national news coverage of the scandal, McCready has made the rounds, including multiple interviews CNN and MSNBC. He and groups supporting him have even started raising money and running an ad aimed at Harris.

Harris, meanwhile, has been silent except for the video released by his campaign and the interview with local TV station WBTV..

“McCready’s profile has skyrocketed since the election,” Wasserman said. “Harris’ has, too, for the wrong reasons.”

Depending on what investigators find, a damaged Harris could find it difficult to even win a new GOP primary, if there is one.

And if he does manage to get a re-match with McCready, Harris could have trouble raising money, energizing supporters and even getting full-throated GOP support.

Unlike in the November election, Republicans have no chance now to hold on to their House majority.

“Republicans aren’t going to be in power in the next Congress regardless. It’s pretty difficult to rally the troops,” Wasserman said. ”Fundraising (for Harris) would be a big concern.”

President Donald Trump shakes hands with GOP candidate Mark Harris, left, \as he speaks at Bojangles Coliseum Friday night.. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Nort Carolina native Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said “there’s been some buzzing” about finding some way to dump Harris and fielding a candidate against McCready who isn’t damaged.

But he said other Republicans are keeping mum and taking a wait-and-see attitude. “It’s still a fluid and uncertain situation.”

For now, some N.C. Republican officials are still defending Harris, though that could change as other possible GOP contenders emerge.

“We believe Mark Harris is a man of high integrity and honor,” NC GOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse said Tuesday. “We have seen nothing that makes us think Mark Harris participated in or would condone this behavior. We believe it is against his character. We know him to be a good man.”

Tami Fitzgerald, who leads the N.C. Values Coalition, said it would be a mistake to write off Harris. Evangelical Christians — the most reliable Republican voters — still believe and back him, she said.

“Evangelical voters have no reason to question the integrity of Mark Harris,” said Fitzgerald, who has been a Harris ally on the fights against same-sex marriage and extending civil rights protections to transgender persons.

Like Trump, she blamed the media and the Democratic Party for the GOP woes.

“I think in the court of the media, (Harris) has been tarred and feathered,” she said. “Instead of waiting for the state board to do the investigation, the press has been down there (in Bladen County) and the Democratic Party has been down there tampering with witnesses.”

Land, the Charlotte seminary president, echoed Fitzgerald, saying he doesn’t expect Harris’ base to desert him.

Asked if evangelical voters will continue to back Harris even as his integrity is being questioned, Land said, “I haven’t met one yet who has not expressed strong confidence in Mark. If anything, they’re even more resolved in their support than before.”

Pittenger had been wary enough of Dowless that he refused to hire him, the Washington Post reported. Still, Land said he believes Harris didn’t know about any wrongdoing.

“Mark is new to the business of politics compared to Robert Pittenger,” Land said. “Politics, unfortunately, can be a dirty business. That’s why it’s so difficult to get people to run for the right reasons.... I applaud Mark’s courage and fortitude to get into the arena.”

But Bitzer, the political scientist, agreed that Harris could be dogged by the unfolding scandal in a new vote.

Still, he acknowledged that evangelical voters, who overwhelmingly supported Trump in the 2016 election, have shown themselves to be forgiving, and willing to support flawed candidates who agree with them on key social issues.

“It seems to me in looking at that voting group, they’ve gone from the idealism of Reagan to the disappointment of George W. Bush to, now, a sense of pragmatic reality,” he said.

“It will likely be a very ugly campaign.”

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