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5 things to watch in critical NC race

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - Voters are heading to the polls across south-central North Carolina to cast their ballots in the neck-and-neck race in the 9th District, a crucial special election that may very well serve as a bellwether for President Trump and Republicans' electoral odds in 2020.

The district, which stretches from the Charlotte suburbs in the west to rural Bladen County in the east, has been in GOP hands for nearly 60 years, and Trump carried the district by more than 11 points in 2016.

But last year's regularly scheduled election showed then-Republican candidate Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready separated by only 905 votes, signaling that the district's political terrain may be shifting.

The results from that election were scrapped earlier this year after state election officials uncovered a sweeping ballot fraud scheme allegedly operated by a contractor for Harris's campaign, and Harris declined to run in the ensuing special election.

Now, McCready and the new Republican candidate, state Sen. Dan Bishop, are locked in a dead heat, and both candidates concede that Tuesday's election will likely come down to turnout.

Polls close at 7:30 p.m.

Here's what to watch on Election Day in North Carolina's 9th District:

Trump's popularity

Trump traveled to Fayetteville, in the eastern part of the 9th District, on Monday to make a last-minute plea to his supporters to turn out for Bishop on Election Day, casting the vote as a chance to inch toward regaining a majority in the House after a spate of GOP losses in 2018.

Whether that visit gave Bishop the momentum he needs to emerge victorious on Tuesday is one of the biggest questions looming over the election.

He's tied his candidacy closely to the president, frequently echoing Trump's talking points and casting himself as a staunch White House ally who will pursue the president's policy priorities in Congress.

But despite Trump's win here in 2016, there are signs that the political ground is shifting. Two counties in the district - Richmond and Robeson - swung for McCready in last year's election after going for Trump two years earlier.

And like suburbs across the country, the areas surrounding Charlotte have seen an influx of new residents from more Democratic-leaning areas in recent years that could give McCready a boost at the polls.

African American turnout

African Americans represent a sizable portion of the vote share in three rural counties east of Charlotte - Anson, Richmond and Scotland - and are poised to play a crucial role in the special election Tuesday.

Trump walked away victorious in Richmond County in 2016, due in part to low African American turnout there. But the county swung for McCready in last year's election, and Democrats are hoping that it does so again.

Democrats have been funneling cash into Anson, Richmond and Scotland counties in recent months, with much of that money being spent on polling, modeling and turnout research for African American voters. Whether those efforts pay off in the special election could prove crucial on Tuesday.

The Lumbee vote

Both parties have taken pains to court voters in North Carolina's Lumbee community, vowing to push for full federal recognition for the tribe in Congress. And while voter turnout among tribe members has historically been low, they may end up playing a deciding role in the race.

Consider this: last year, McCready trailed Harris by less than 1,000 votes, and there are roughly 40,000 voting-eligible Lumbee tribal members. If even a small fraction cast their ballots, it could have a tangible influence.

Bret Healy, a consultant for the voter advocacy group Four Directions, said that field workers for the group had brought roughly 1,600 Lumbee voters to early-voting sites ahead of Election Day - and that's not counting others who may have gone on their own or planned to vote Tuesday.

That means that tribal members hold significant political leverage in the contest.

The early vote

By the time early voting ended this weekend, slightly more Democrats had cast their ballots early than Republicans.

And with more than 81,000 votes already in before Election Day, early voting could end up accounting for a majority of the total ballots cast - after all, turnout tends to be lower in special elections and the unusual Sept. 10 election date could mean even fewer people vote.

But Democrats' narrow edge in early voting doesn't mean they will all go to McCready. North Carolina - and the South as a whole - has a history of registered Democrats casting their ballots for Republicans. At the same time, Democrats are hoping that disaffected independents and Republicans will show up for McCready, making the race a virtual jump ball.

The GOP strongholds

Bishop is counting on deep support in Union County, southeast of Charlotte, in early voting and on Election Day. The county has long been dominated by Republicans (Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by more than 30 points in 2016) and remains deeply conservative.

But while Democrats concede that he's likely to carry the county on Tuesday, they're also hoping to chip away at Republicans' margins there, particularly in the communities that border Mecklenburg County and the immediate Charlotte suburbs.

Democrats argue that these areas have become more purple in recent years, loosening Republicans' grip on Union County.

"If you look at the district, if you look at the county, it's no longer just pure red, all conservative," José Santiago, the first vice chairman of the Union County Democratic Party, said. "A lot of people have moved in. It's become a lot more purple."

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