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Trump ally who served on voter integrity panel expresses concern about fraud in North Carolina

In this Nov. 20, 2016, file photo, President-elect Donald Trump greets Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as he arrives at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J.
In this Nov. 20, 2016, file photo, President-elect Donald Trump greets Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as he arrives at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Kris Kobach, an ally of President Trump who served on a voter integrity panel, expressed worry Thursday that Republican fraud might have tainted a North Carolina congressional election, becoming one of the most prominent members of the GOP to publicly express alarm about the race.

“Based on what I have read, I am very concerned that voter fraud did occur,” Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. He said it was unclear whether the alleged wrongdoing was broad enough to change the outcome of the election.

Kobach’s comments contrasted with many other Republican elected officials, including Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who have opted not to comment on the allegations roiling North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

The posture of Trump and other top Republicans for much of this week marked a departure from the recently concluded Florida recount, in which the president and fellow Republicans leveled unsubstantiated claims about Democratic malfeasance.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has not been shy about alleging fraud in elections. Without presenting evidence, he told lawmakers last year that between 3 million and 5 million illegal ballots caused him to lose the popular vote. He also formed a now-defunct commission to probe alleged voter fraud, with Vice President Pence as chairman and Kobach as vice chairman.

North Carolina officials are examining whether an operative who ran a get-out-the-vote effort for the campaign of Republican Mark Harris illegally collected or tampered with absentee ballots.

Harris, who topped Rep. Robert Pittenger in the Republican primary in the spring, finished ahead of Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the Nov. 6 vote. But the state has not certified the results, and on Thursday McCready withdrew his concession to Harris.

Democrats and at least one former Republican official have accused Trump and GOP leaders of partisanship in holding back in their rhetoric when it comes to North Carolina.

“Because it is the Republicans whose hands have been caught in that proverbial election fraud cookie jar,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called the situation an “inconvenient truth” for the GOP.

The North Carolina operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, who told the Charlotte Observer that he did not commit any wrongdoing, declined to comment Thursday. “I’m just not giving any comment at this time,” he told reporters and photographers in front of his house in Bladenboro, adding, “No disrespect to anybody.”

The Harris campaign has said it was not aware of illegal activities.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that in the days immediately after the primary, Pittenger suspected that something was not right.

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.

An NRCC spokesman denied that Pittenger’s campaign raised the possibility of fraud in the primary.

Asked Thursday before The Post’s story was published whether he was concerned about potential fraud in the district, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) replied, “I trust the North Carolina Board of Elections to take whatever action they feel is necessary.”

Burr sidestepped a question about whether it was important for the president and other Republican leaders to speak out. “I think the appropriate thing is for the North Carolina Board of Elections to do their job,” he said.

On Wednesday, Republican senators had little to say about North Carolina.

“I don’t know any details about that,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). “But I’m concerned about Broward County [Fla.], I’m concerned about a couple of races in California, we had a situation in Georgia that [was] questionable,” he added, pointing to other states where Republicans have raised concerns.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also mentioned Broward County, a Democratic stronghold in his state where he and other Republicans criticized the vote-tallying process during the recount in the gubernatorial and Senate races. But he had little to say about North Carolina.

“I don’t know anything about the case,” Rubio said. “I’ve just heard, you know, headlines, but I haven’t read it in depth.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he had not paid attention to the North Carolina situation. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said: “I’m afraid I’m not an expert. I don’t know anything about it, really. I saw a headline, that’s it.”

Democratic lawmakers have had much more say.

“This is bigger than that one seat,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said Thursday. “This is about undermining the integrity of our elections.”

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) let out a laugh Wednesday when asked about North Carolina. “You couldn’t write the script any better,” he said juxtaposing the alleged GOP fraud with conservative efforts to tighten voter ID laws and limit early voting periods.

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said, “The entire election should be redone, all the way back to the primary.”

This week Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), incoming House majority leader, suggested that Democrats, who will control the House in January, may not seat Harris if he is certified the winner.

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, said, “There is an ongoing investigation by state officials, and the speaker believes that is appropriate.”

During a post-election interview with The Post, Ryan voiced some bewilderment about balloting in California, where Democrats performed well, though he stopped short of accusing the state of wrongdoing.

Dallas Woodhouse, the North Carolina GOP executive director, 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.”

Representatives for Trump and Pence did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Kobach, who with Trump’s support made an unsuccessful bid for governor, said: “Voter fraud happens on both sides of the aisle. And if nothing else, I’m glad Democrats are acknowledging that it exists.”

Amy Gardner, Beth Reinhard and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

Read more at PowerPost