NC election scandal probe focuses on Charlotte-area political consultant

Since Andy Yates co-founded Red Dome Group in 2013, the political consulting firm’s client roster has grown to include everyone from city council candidates in local races to a powerful congressional representative and the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Now, the Cornelius-based firm is at the center of the growing scandal involving possible election tampering in the 9th District congressional race. Republican Mark Harris paid Red Dome $428,908 for campaign work during the primary and general election. And Red Dome hired McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County political operative who’s been accused of collecting absentee ballots en masse — forbidden under N.C. law.

Wednesday, the N.C. State Board of Elections confirmed that it’s subpoenaed Red Dome, along with the Harris campaign. Yates didn’t return messages seeking comment this week, but he’s previously acknowledged hiring Dowless.

“He was an independent contractor who worked on grassroots for the campaign, independent of the campaign,” Yates told the Observer last week.

Over the past several years, Yates and Red Dome have worked on dozens of campaigns, mostly in North Carolina and almost always — though not exclusively — for Republicans. Campaign finance records show Red Dome has collected about $2 million from candidates and PACs in state and federal races.

Republican Mark Harris, left, defeated Democrat Dan McCready in North Carolina’s 9th District. Observer archives rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

His biggest single client appears to be Harris, according to campaign finance records. Since 2016, the N.C. Republican Party has also paid him substantial amounts, mostly during the 2016 election cycle, totaling $347,541.

The most recent payment was a $17,710 check on Oct. 8.

Dallas Woodhouse, the party’s executive director, said the GOP paid the money from its state fund so that Red Dome could help state-level candidates.

“This payment was for mail services related to local candidates at the state level,” Woodhouse said in an interview. He said the party had little direct engagement with Red Dome.

“We had nothing to do with the activities in questions and didn’t fund any absentee ballot work in that area in question,” Woodhouse said. “We are as horrified reading these news articles as everyone else.

“We think there should be a full and complete investigation. We want there to be confidence that our candidate got more legitimate votes.”

Asked about Red Dome’s reputation as a consultant, Woodhouse said, “It’s clearly not what it was.”

Over the past five years, Yates has built a reputation as a political operator who was proficient in old and new techniques, such as direct mail and social media.

“I’ve known Andy Yates for a number of years,” said state Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican who has paid Red Dome about $25,000. “I got good mail pieces out and good online ads. Their work for me has been great.”

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Yates co-founded Red Dome in 2013 with Todd Poole, who left the firm after less than a year to become executive director of the N.C. Republican Party. He now works for Rep. Ted Budd.

Although he’s worked mostly for Republican candidates, Yates has occasionally done work for the other side.

“I’m a bleeding heart liberal Democrat,” said Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox, who defeated the longtime incumbent as a first-time candidate in 2017. He paid Red Dome $6,000, and said Yates helped craft targeted ads for him online. Knox was initially a bit skeptical of working with Yates.

“He does have a Ronald Reagan bobblehead and a picture of Ronald Reagan on horseback” in his office, Knox said. But Yates delivered the ads well, Knox said. And they got along. Unlike some political operatives who enjoy the brawling, bare-knuckle aspects of a nasty campaign, Knox said Yates is more affable and laid-back.

“I liked him,” said Knox. “He’s a matter-of-fact guy.”

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Yates, a Wake Forest graduate and N.C. native, has garnered attention for his successful campaigning. The American Association of Political Consultants named him a member of its 2018 “40 under 40” class.

He’s worked for U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, who has paid Red Dome $52,850 since 2014, for campaign expenses associated with advertising and online marketing.

A Meadows spokesman didn’t return a message seeking more information about work Red Dome did for the congressman. Red Dome’s client list also includes work on behalf of N.C. Treasurer Dale Folwell, state Rep. Andy Dulin, the 2016 Republican National Convention and President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

In 2018, Red Dome worked for Ohio Republican Melanie Leneghan, who lost a congressional primary to Troy Balderson. She paid Red Dome $51,750, campaign finance records show. She lost by 653 votes and sued to overturn the results due to alleged vote tampering, according to media reports, but her complaint was thrown out by the Ohio Supreme Court.

But Harris, who narrowly beat out incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger with 828 votes in the May primary and now has a 905-vote margin over Democrat Dan McCready, stood to be the group’s most high profile success story. That’s in jeopardy now, as Democrats in Congress have said the U.S. House might refuse to seat Harris should he come in January, and the N.C. State Board of Elections could potentially order a new vote for the 9th District.

It’s unclear whether Yates sought out Dowless. To the Washington Post, he denied having Dowless improperly collect ballots and said Harris “was aware of Red Dome’s relationship with Mr. Dowless and believes like I do that Mr. Dowless operated within the bounds of the law.”

Carolyn Justice, a former legislator who Red Dome lists as a lead consultant, said she doesn’t know Dowless or anything about the investigation because she didn’t work on the Harris campaign.

“I am not a principal of Red Dome. I just do campaigns on the coast. I’ve never been on a campaign in Robeson or Bladen county, as far as I can remember,” Justice said. “I’m totally disconnected from that. And I never worked on the Mark Harris campaign.”

Red Dome also worked for Sheriff Jim McVicker, who won reelection in Bladen County. He paid the company $8,000 for “get out to vote” efforts, according to financial disclosures. McVicker also paid Dowless $8,800 directly, also for “get out to vote.”

In 2015, trade publication Campaigns & Elections Magazine named Yates a “Rising Star.” Asked what his advice was for aspiring consultants, Yates described “The single best piece of advice that I’ve gotten.”

“It’s just as important who you choose not to work with as who you do choose to work with,” Yates recalled Jack Hawke, the longtime chairman of the N.C. Republican Party who died in 2013, told him. “One ethically challenged candidate can bring down all of your hard work.”

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