BLADENBORO, N.C. - When GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger lost his primary by a narrow margin in May, he suspected something was amiss.
The congressman turned to a group of friends and family who had gathered with him on election night at a steakhouse near Charlotte, North Carolina, and blamed the "ballot stuffers in Bladen," according to three people at the gathering.
Pittenger's concern stemmed from the vote tallies in rural Bladen County, North Carolina, where his challenger, a pastor from the Charlotte suburbs named Mark Harris, had won 437 absentee mail-in votes. Pittenger, a three-term incumbent, had received just 17.
In the days immediately after the race, aides to Pittenger told the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party and a regional political director for the National Republican Congressional Committee that they believed fraud had occurred, according to people familiar with their discussions.
GOP officials did little to scrutinize the results, instead turning their attention to Harris' general-election campaign against a well-funded Democratic opponent, the people said.
Their accounts provide the first indication that state and national Republican officials received early warnings about voting irregularities in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, now the subject of multiple criminal probes.
A spokesman for the NRCC denied that Pittenger's campaign raised the possibility of fraud in the primary.
Allegations of fraud in November's general election have now put the outcome of the 9th Congressional District race in limbo. State investigators are examining the activities of a political operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless, who ran a get-out-the-vote effort for the Harris campaign during the primary and general elections.
Dowless, who has worked on political campaigns in Bladen for at least a decade, touts his ability to mobilize voters to cast ballots by mail, according to people who know him. He has been under scrutiny by state officials since 2016, when allegations surfaced about illegal ballot harvesting in that year's campaigns, leading to a public hearing.
Dowless, who told the Charlotte Observer last week that he did not commit any wrongdoing, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Harris campaign has said it was not aware of any illegal activities.
Pittenger said Dowless tried to sell him his services in 2016 but that he declined to hire the operative.
"I just knew I didn't want to be involved with him," Pittenger said. "Dowless's efforts were widely known, and we did share our concerns with several people," declining to elaborate on who he spoke to or what he said.
Since reports of irregularities in the 9th District emerged last month, GOP leaders in the state - including Dallas Woodhouse, the state GOP executive director - initially played down concerns that laws were broken. They repeatedly cast the situation in political terms, asserting that any voting irregularities were not widespread enough to change the outcome of the election.
In recent days, amid mounting allegations of a ballot-harvesting operation, state Republicans have shifted their rhetoric. Woodhouse told The Post on Thursday that if the state elections board can "show a substantial likelihood" that possible fraud could have changed the outcome of November's vote, "then we fully would support a new election."
In an interview this week, Woodhouse initially said he did not recall fielding complaints from Pittenger aides of possible fraud after the primary. But he called back a few moments later to say that he did remember hearing of anomalies - and took "a cursory look at the end of that race at the vote totals."
He recalled concluding that Harris had won the overall vote with a strong showing from evangelical voters, but he said: "We did not look real specifically at absentee ballots."
"If somebody said something about the absentee ballots, it is just very possible that it didn't register with us," Woodhouse said. "We had a lot of campaigns and a lot of people expressing concerns at the end of the election, and we were trying to quickly move on to the general election."
NRCC spokesman Matt Gorman denied that anyone affiliated with the Pittenger campaign brought up possible fraud to anyone at the committee, including Tyler Foote, who ran the southeast region for the NRCC.
"We had them on the phone numerous times, and there was no mention of fraud," Gorman said. "It's unfortunate that there's a revisionist history going on."
Foote did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He has been named Harris' incoming chief of staff, although whether Harris will be seated in Congress in January remains uncertain.
Pittenger said he did not recall being told of fraud complaints his advisers made to Woodhouse and Foote, and he declined to confirm that he blamed "ballot stuffers" on election night.
But he said there was "a lot of angst" among his campaign aides, who "were all upset about what happened."
"I think there were a lot of frustrated feelings inside the room as we saw the results come in," he said.
The state elections board is investigating irregularities in mail-in balloting in the 9th District general election - many of them in Bladen County, which had the highest share of mail-in votes in the district, state records show.
Investigators have spoken with witnesses who link Dowless to an effort to collect absentee ballots from voters and are examining whether he or his associates filled out ballots or discarded them, according to people familiar with the probe. It is illegal to collect or tamper with someone else's ballot.
Multiple voters said in interviews that they handed over their ballots - some of which were not fully filled out and were left unsealed - to people who showed up at their doors and offered to collect them. Two Bladen County women said they worked for Dowless and went door to door asking voters to turn over their ballots, WSOC-TV in Charlotte has reported.
This week, the elections board issued subpoenas to the Harris campaign and its general consultant, Red Dome Group, as well as the local sheriff, James A. McVicker, a Republican who won reelection last month and also hired Dowless to run his absentee-ballot program, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
The Wake County district attorney's office in Raleigh and the State Bureau of Investigation are also conducting probes, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, D, told The Post.
While the investigations continue, the elections board has declined to certify the November results in the 9th District, in which Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, according to unofficial results.
If the board concludes that the irregularities tainted those results, it could toss them and call for a new election. The board has announced plans for a hearing by Dec. 21.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the incoming House majority leader, said this week that Democrats might refuse to seat Harris until "substantial" questions about the integrity of his election are resolved. On Thursday, incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was more cautious, saying that House Democrats were awaiting the determination of North Carolina elections officials.
Since the November election, Pittenger, 70, a real estate investor who lives in Charlotte, has hinted openly at his suspicions of wrongdoing. "Look at the votes. Follow the money," he told the Charlotte Observer last week.
Pittenger also told Spectrum News that he was "fully aware" of voting irregularities in the district, adding that there were "some pretty unsavory people out there, particularly in Bladen County. And I didn't have anything to do with them."
Pittenger told The Post that after speaking to Dowless for "five or 10 minutes" in 2016, he knew he did not want to bring him onto his campaign.
"I didn't want to do business with him after I met him," Pittenger said. "I just didn't like the way it sounded. But he went other places, and I knew that was going to be an issue. But nonetheless, I was willing to live with" the possibility that his opponents might hire the operative.
In the 2016 GOP primary, Dowless ended up working for Pittenger challenger Todd Johnson, a Union County insurance salesman, campaign finance records show. Johnson won an overwhelming number of mail-in ballots in Bladen County that spring: 211. Harris, who was also a candidate that year, logged four votes. Pittenger got just one, records show.
Two years later, Pittenger ignored the advice of his advisers to hire Dowless and have him do no work, just to keep him from working for his opponent, according to two people close to the campaign.
Instead, Dowless was hired by the Harris campaign. John Branch, Harris' attorney, and Andy Yates of Red Dome, his campaign consultant, confirmed in statements this week that Dowless was paid for a field effort but said they were not aware of any illegal activity.
The campaign "at all times believed he was working within the confines of North Carolina law," Branch said.
In the May 8 primary, Harris beat Pittenger by 828 votes - with half of his margin coming from mail-in ballots in Bladen.
"Bladen County was a factor" in the loss, Pittenger said, calling the situation "disconcerting."
In last month's general election, Harris drew 420 mail-in votes from Bladen compared with 258 for McCready, his Democratic opponent, state records show. Investigators are examining whether additional mail-in votes were discarded and whether the alleged ballot-harvesting operation extended beyond Bladen, according to people familiar with the probe.
State records show that a large number of absentee ballots across the 9th District - more than 3,400 - were requested by voters but never returned.
By the time advisers to Pittenger expressed their frustration to Woodhouse and Foote, the campaign was unwinding, Pittenger had few resources to put up a fight and was under pressure from other Republicans to rally around Harris, according to people familiar with the situation.
By June 30, Pittenger's campaign had just $9,179 on hand and about $792,000 in debt, much of it carried over from his first race in 2012, according to campaign finance records. Harris had $295,658 in cash, while McCready, who faced a weak opponent in his primary, was heading into the general election with $1.8 million in his campaign coffers.
"In order to beat Dan McCready, as strong a candidate as Dan McCready was, the general-election campaign needed to start right away," said a person familiar with the thinking in Pittenger's campaign and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. "There wasn't time to go into a recount and use those financial resources. All the campaigns were financially strapped. The only way to beat Dan McCready was to put our weapons down within the party. Robert, being a good Republican, agreed that if he continued to try to raise an issue with this, it would only hurt the Republicans' abilities to win in the fall."
Pittenger was also hampered by poor rapport with his aides and other Republicans in North Carolina and Washington, so there was little appetite to take up a fight on his behalf, according to people familiar with the situation.
The congressman initially declined to endorse Harris, saying that he wanted an apology for what he described as "baseless attacks" on his voting record by the pastor. Pittenger did not mention election irregularities. At the end of May, however, Pittenger issued a statement supporting Harris. People familiar with his views said he did so reluctantly, under pressure from GOP leaders.
Kevin Seifert, political director for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., denied that, saying he had expressed sadness at Pittenger's defeat. "We never told him to get in line," he said. "It was a hard-fought race."
Now, Pittenger said, he's gratified by the intensifying scrutiny on Dowless and his tactics.
"I always told my people, 'They hadn't been able to catch him,' " he said. "I never had a lot of hope seeing a lot of resolution with this guy. I'm glad they're moving toward this now. I think it's a healthy thing to nip this thing in the bud and remove him from further campaigns."