North Carolina gives both parties reason to worry

North Carolina voters sent Rep.-elect Dan Bishop (R) to Washington on Tuesday night, closing out the final election of the 2018 cycle with a Republican victory that was simultaneously relieving and pyrrhic.

Bishop, a state senator who represented parts of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, beat businessman and war veteran Dan McCready (D) by 2 percentage points.

But as Republicans and Democrats digested the results from a district that spans from the Charlotte suburbs to the rural Cotton Belt late Tuesday and into Wednesday morning, both sides had reasons for concern.

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Republicans showed signs that their support in once rock-solid suburbs is still eroding, while Democrats wondered what they had to do to get some of their core voters to the polls.

Two competing fundamentals stand out: A win is a win, and the House Republican Conference will be one member larger, and one seat closer to reclaiming the majority, when Bishop takes the oath. On the other hand, how many other once-safe districts will be at risk if Republicans only won a district that voted for President TrumpDonald John TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it MORE by 12 points by about 4,000 votes?

The election results show Bishop’s campaign scored its most significant wins in Union County, a stalwart rural Republican hub east of Charlotte where he led McCready by about 12,500 votes.

But the most significant results came in the eastern, more rural counties in the 9th District. McCready won Cumberland County, where President Trump held a rally on Monday, by 1,000 votes in 2018; on Tuesday, Bishop won the county by 36 votes.

McCready’s 300-vote margin in Richmond County in 2018 became Bishop’s 500-vote margin in 2019. 

Bishop “basically camped out in the eastern part of the district,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.

Trump, who won North Carolina’s electoral votes by only 2.6 percentage points in 2016, sought to claim credit for Bishop’s win.

“There’s no question that he’s the congressman-elect this morning because of the personal efforts of President Trump,” Trump’s campaign manager Brad ParscaleBradley (Brad) James ParscaleMORE told reporters on Wednesday. “We saw obvious voter movement in the area surrounding his rally.”

But it was in Robeson County, home of the Lumbee Indian Tribe, where Bishop won the race. 

Less than a year ago, McCready won Robeson County by almost 5,000 votes. That represented a huge swing from 2016, when the county voted overwhelmingly for President Trump. But on Tuesday, Bishop fought McCready to a virtual tie; McCready won Robeson County by just 231 votes.

“We had a very specific program to reach out to the Lumbee,” said Jim Blaine, Bishop’s chief strategist. “We talked a lot about what he had done in the legislature to specifically benefit and watch out for their interests.”

Bishop won 15 precincts in Robeson County that had favored McCready in 2018. Of those 15 precincts, ten are majority Lumbee.

“Precincts with heavy American Indian voter registration basically deserted McCready. It’s pretty remarkable, the difference in those precincts. He had double-digit drops in several heavy American Indian precincts,” Bitzer said.

But, worryingly for Republicans, McCready came so close to victory because of inroads he made in suburban Mecklenburg County.

Mecklenburg’s suburban enclaves were once cornerstones of the state Republican Party. Today, those suburbs are slipping, a worrying sign for a GOP that needs to win back similar areas around the country if it wants to reclaim its House majority.

On Tuesday, McCready won Mecklenburg by about 8,000 votes — slightly below his 9,000-vote margin there in 2018, but a margin that represents an improvement in his total vote share because of lower overall voter turnout. In 2018, McCready won Mecklenburg with 54 percent of the vote; in 2019, that share increased to 56 percent.

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That wasn’t enough to overcome Bishop’s advantage in rural parts of the district, but for Democrats, it bodes well in the perpetual battle for suburban voters.

“The divide keeps getting bigger. You saw in the rural areas that it’s a problem. But there’s still more people in suburban America,” said John Anzalone, the Democratic pollster who conducted surveys for McCready’s campaign. “It’s an absolute numbers game, and there’s just more people in suburban and exurban areas than there are in the rural areas. That is by no means giving up on narrowing the margin in the rural areas.”

Democrats also pointed to progress the party has made in turning out voters early, banking votes long before Election Day to more efficiently target voters over time. When the polls opened on Tuesday, McCready led by 8,000 votes, according to data published by the North Carolina Board of Elections.

Bishop erased McCready’s early-vote edge with a stronger performance on Election Day, when he netted more than 11,000 more votes than the Democrat. But the early vote edge, in a state as narrowly contested as North Carolina, gave Democrats hope for the future.

The spotlight now shifts from Charlotte and Fayetteville to Capitol Hill, where Republicans on Wednesday began considering the results — and their own chances next year.

Tuesday’s election recalled several other special elections that occurred in 2017 and 2018 in Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona and Ohio. In those elections, in deeply Republican districts, Republicans held on, but by closer-than-expected margins.

“I’ve seen this movie before. Everyone is happy the night of. Sigh of relief. Then the media narrative sets in,” said one glum Republican strategist. “Then come the retirements.”

— Max Greenwood contributed to this report