Tea Party Senate Candidate Caught on Video Taking Church Donations

Mark Harris could win North Carolina's GOP Senate primary next Tuesday. If so, he may easily become the state's next U.S. senator. And he could do it all with sketchy "love offerings" from parishioners caught on tape passing the hat at the church where he's a pastor.

WRAL-TV in Raleigh captured the January video, embedded below, from the church's very own playlist of sermons—part of the station's longer story about how Harris, a longtime man of God and new Tea Party darling, has actively mixed his religion with his politics, including ways that may skirt campaign-finance laws and threaten several churches' tax-exempt status.

As federally approved nonprofits, churches must refrain from materially supporting political candidates and their campaigns or making clear-cut endorsements of candidates. As a candidate, Harris is required to report all his campaign donations, no matter how small. But the video, and additional info gathered by WRAL, suggests neither Harris nor his Blackwelder Park Baptist Church may be living up to their obligations:

In the video, after about an hour of passionate praising and Harris' sermonizing (at 1:06), current pastor Rev. Don Saylor tells his flock Harris "would make a great senator," adding:

Now, I want you to do this also – we're going to take an offering, all right? We're going to take an offering for Dr. Harris, for his coming and preaching, also for whatever you want to do otherwise for supporting him in this campaign. I hope you will think about it. He has some materials in his car. If you would like to get more materials and pass them out and thereby get better known in this area, and then when the primaries come, you and all of your friends can vote for him. Amen?

A campaign finance expert consulted by WRAL called the donations "problematic," but candidate Harris says these "love offerings" are no big deal, and he does this at a lot of churches across the state while he campaigns:

"I would hope the pastor would made it very clear that we're taking up a love offering for Mark Harris the pastor, not for the campaign," Harris said. "Some of these guys are very aware that I'm on a personal leave of absence without pay, and I have no income. So, should the church take up a love offering, that would be no different from them taking up a love offering when I was preaching revival there or preaching any other meeting."

There's no telling how much Harris has raised this way, since he apparently hasn't reported any of those church donations as campaign contributions, as FEC regulations would appear to require. Again, no big deal, he told the TV station:

"Some churches haven't given me anything, quite frankly," he said.

Other churches, he said, will give him a payment for his travel expenses. Others follow the old Baptist tradition of taking up an offering for the traveling preacher.

"Often time, to be honest with you, a love offering doesn't even cover my mileage," he said.

Harris is among the top three candidates in an eight-person race for the GOP nomination next week; he's lost ground recently but could make an early-summer runoff. The winner faces embattled Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, whose seat is considered crucial for Republicans if they want to win back the Senate. In recent polls, Harris beats Hagan by about 4 points statewide.

[Photo credit: AP]