GOP faces must-win race in North Carolina

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Republicans are scrambling to avoid what would be a devastating loss in the special House election in North Carolina’s 9th District.

Internal polls from both sides show Republican Dan Bishop and Democrat Dan McCready running neck and neck in a traditional GOP stronghold that was unexpectedly competitive in 2018. But privately, several Republican officials and strategists have conceded that Democrats may have an edge in voter enthusiasm in a district that President TrumpDonald John TrumpSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration Trump is failing on trade policy Trump holds call with Netanyahu to discuss possible US-Israel defense treaty MORE won by nearly 12 points in 2016.

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Republicans have sought to nationalize the race by homing in on issues like Trump’s proposed border wall and labeling McCready a “socialist.” They’re hoping that an eleventh-hour visit to the district by Trump on Monday will lend them the momentum they need to push Bishop across the finish line on Tuesday.

In an interview with The Hill on Saturday, Bishop insisted that Trump’s planned rally in the district, as well as an appearance by Vice President Pence on Monday, would give his candidacy a final jolt heading into Election Day.

“The sense that we have is that we’re surging,” Bishop said. “Early voting sort of started out a little soft and has firmed up. It looked really good the last couple days. And I think with the president coming in and the vice president on Monday, that’s going to put us over the top.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have deployed a divergent strategy in the district, which stretches from the Charlotte suburbs to Fayetteville in the east. McCready has sought to keep his distance from partisan rancor in Washington and cast himself as a compromise-minded moderate.

“People are tired of partisan politics. You turn on Twitter it looks like our country is just impossibly divided, but most people are not there,” McCready told reporters after a rally in Charlotte on Friday. “People in North Carolina are interested in leaders who are interested in bringing this country together and working on real problems that people are struggling with.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has taken what officials say is a “behind-the-scenes and below-the-radar” approach to the 9th District election. The committee opted early on to invest heavily in voter contact and turnout operations, and only recently began spending money on advertising.

“A piece of our strategy has been to not throw a ton of money on TV until the end, but to spend on the edges to avoid nationalizing the race,” one DCCC official said, adding that the committee wanted to avoid a high-profile showdown like the 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th District that set records for outside spending in a House race. 

That race saw now-former Rep. Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelGOP buys JonOssoff.com after Democrat launches Georgia Senate bid Jon Ossoff launching Georgia Senate campaign GOP faces must-win race in North Carolina MORE (R) edge out Democrat Jon Ossoff in a vote that was largely seen as an early referendum on Trump’s presidency.

By investing in field operations over advertising for much of the race, Democrats were hoping to “take the burden off McCready so he could spend money on TV.”

North Carolina’s 9th District has remained without a representative in Congress for the better part of a year. The results of a previous election to fill the seat were vacated after state officials uncovered a massive ballot-harvesting scheme operated by a contractor for the previous Republican nominee, Mark HarrisMark HarrisThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate Why my American Indian tribe voted Republican in NC's special election North Carolina race raises 2020 red flags for Republicans, Democrats MORE.

Harris ultimately declined to run again after state officials called a new election in the district, and Bishop replaced him on the ticket after winning a crowded primary.

But that primary left McCready with a time advantage. The solar company executive and Iraq War veteran has been running for the seat for more than two years after coming close to winning in 2018. In that time, McCready has raised nearly $12 million, giving him an enormous fundraising edge over Bishop.

At the same time, outside groups have spent enormously in the race. The National Republican Congressional Committee, Club for Growth Action and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to House GOP leadership, have collectively pumped more than $6 million into the race, investing mostly in advertisements attacking McCready.

The DCCC, the biggest spender on the Democratic side, has spent a fraction of that on television ads — roughly $1.2 million. In a memo sent to caucus members last month, the committee touted its efforts to turn out African American voters and members of the Lumbee Tribe in the eastern part of the district.

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McCready has also received outside help from Democratic groups, like VoteVets.org Action Fund and House Majority Forward, a liberal dark money group that has dropped roughly $1 million on ads supporting McCready.

There’s much at stake for both parties. North Carolina’s 9th District has been represented in Washington by Republicans for nearly 60 years, and Trump carried it in 2016. The GOP would likely tout a win here as a rejection of the Democratic Party ahead of 2020.

“If you support the president and you look at what’s happening in Congress right now with the investigations and the obstruction and the refusal to give the president a win on anything ... this is a chance to send someone to Washington to enact his agenda,” Jessica Proud, a spokesperson for Bishop’s campaign, said.

“It’s a referendum on what they’ve done since taking control [of the House].”

Part of the challenge for Republicans, several party strategists and officials said, is that McCready has been campaigning for so long that he has amassed incumbent-level fundraising hauls without actually ever serving in Washington. Democrats say that has allowed him to strengthen his moderate bona fides in an otherwise Republican-leaning district — an argument rejected by Bishop.

“What you see that contrasts with that is this massive amount of money from people who are anything but moderate, who apparently see something in him other than an opportunity for moderation to reign,” Bishop said.

Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarBill Maher, Michael Moore spar over Democrats' strategy for 2020 We must stand together against hatred GOP retreat creates WiFi password blasting socialism MORE doesn’t contribute to Dan McCready because she expects that to result in greater moderation,” he added, referring to the progressive Minnesota congresswoman who has become a sort of bogeyman for Republicans.

Democrats are convinced that enthusiasm is on their side. In last year’s vote, McCready trailed Harris by only 905 votes. He’s had nearly a year to raise more money and campaign, and his allies say that Democrats are more motivated to vote than ever because of the ballot fraud scheme.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina–based Democratic strategist and DCCC adviser who has been working on the 9th District race. “We shouldn’t even be talking about this race.”

“The fact that Trump won the district by 12 points and that Dan is within striking distance says everything about the type of campaign he’s run, his messaging.”

Speaking to volunteers at a campaign office in Monroe County, about 45 minutes east of Charlotte, on Saturday, McCready said he was encouraged by the enthusiasm he had seen in the days before Election Day. Democrats were leading in early voting, he said.

But, he conceded, the race would likely come down to the wire.

“This is going to be close. And the early voting numbers are really encouraging,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s Democrats that vote early and it’s Republicans come out on Election Day. So we can’t take anything for granted.”