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In GOP debate, Mark Harris and John Bradford were laser-focused on each other

Mark Harris has said he was unfairly targeted by Democrats during the 2018 mail ballot scandal.
Mark Harris
Mark Harris has said he was unfairly targeted by Democrats during the 2018 mail ballot scandal.

This story originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

WBT hosted a debate last week between the six Republican candidates for the 8th Congressional District, which stretches from Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties to Robeson County.

The candidates were in near-total agreement most of the night — everyone wants to crack down on immigration, everyone wants to impeach President Biden, everyone is pro-life, etc., etc., — but pastor Mark Harris and Mecklenburg State Rep. John Bradford clashed a handful of times.

In an indication of who the likely frontrunners are, Harris and Bradford focused on each other, mostly ignoring the other four candidates: Leigh Brown, Don Brown, Allen Baucom and Chris Maples.

The district is overwhelmingly Republican, and the winner of the March 5 primary is almost certain to go to Washington. The seat is open because Republican Dan Bishop is running for N.C. attorney general.

Bladen County scandal

The first debate question was about the 2018 mail ballot scandal in Bladen County — one of the only Congressional races ever thrown out over fraud allegations.

Harris, of course, was the Republican congressional candidate that year. He appeared to have beaten Democrat Dan McCready by just over 800 votes, but the state Board of Elections refused to certify the result after hearing rumors about mail ballot fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties.

Harris had hired political operative McCrae Dowless (now deceased) who was accused of illegal ballot harvesting.

WBT asked the candidates whether Harris is to blame for what happened and whether he is “damaged goods.”

Bradford and Cabarrus real estate agent Leigh Brown raised their hands. No one else did.

“It was Mark under his own testimony who told the courts that he thought a special election needed to be held,” Bradford said. “And he got up and walked out of the room and there was a gasp in the courtroom.”

Harris did ask the state elections commission for a new election. It came after his son, John Harris, had testified that he warned his father that what Dowless was doing might be illegal.

Harris’ attorneys at one point stopped him from testifying, worried he might perjure himself.

Bradford said if Harris hadn’t done anything wrong, he should have stayed to fight.

“But the evidence was clear that they had hired someone on the campaign that had done election ballot harvesting and that’s illegal,” Bradford said. “And while he may say the Democrats stole it, all the evidence suggests otherwise.”

In the debate Harris defended himself, saying the number of ballots called into question was small.

“That’s what is fascinating at the end of the story at what the state board of elections did, over 10 ballots and threw out 282,000 votes of the citizens of the 9th District at that particular time,” he said. “It was a great disservice, it was a tragedy, and it was wrong.”


Headshot of John Bradford
North Carolina General Assembly
John Bradford said he was pro-life but against federal restrictions.

Bradford was asked whether the federal government should restrict abortion, and, if so, how? Bradford talked about how his daughters were born premature, and said “extreme radicals” would have wanted him to “abort his babies.”

He said he is “pro-life” and has “voted for pro-life legislation.”

But he also said “the federal government has no place in this,” meaning he would not vote for a federal ban on abortion.

Harris pounced.

When Bradford was facing reelection in 2022 in his 50-50 district, Harris noted Bradford had been quoted in the media as saying, “I have no intentions myself of going back to Raleigh and trying to make the 20 weeks more restrictive.”

Harris acknowledged that Bradford “went along” with the General Assembly’s ban on most abortions after 12 weeks but that “I’m sure he would have fought against the six-week 'heartbeat bill' that many of us were hoping would be passed.”


Bradford lives in north Mecklenburg, which is not in the district. Harris has a house and pastors a church in Mooresville, which is also not in the district, although he has an apartment in Union County. (You don’t have to live in your congressional district to represent it.)

Bradford said he plans to move to 8th District if he wins.

Map of districts
NC Redistricting
District 8 (dark blue)

Harris said he’s already an 8th District resident.

“I’m already living here,” he said, saying they would “continue” to make their primary residence Indian Trail.

WBT’s Brett Jensen then asked: “So you are saying — your apartment in Indian Trail as opposed to your house in Mooresville — is your primary residence?”

Harris said yes.

Bradford then attacked.

“Look, Mark is trying to fool you on Democrats stealing the race (the 2018 congressional race), and he’s trying to fool you on this issue,” Bradford said. “He lives in Mooresville. His campaign commercial was filmed in his kitchen in Mooresville.”

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.