Opinion | Campaign

Why the North Carolina special election has national implications

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Following Democrats' takeover of the House of Representatives in January, one House special election will offer insights into President Donald Trump's re-election prospects in 2020. 

Three House special elections are anticipated in 2019. The first occurred after Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) resigned his safe PA-12 seat, where Trump won by 36 points

In May Republican Fred Keller won by the same margin, handing the Republican Party some good news. However, in the weeks preceding the election, Trump reached an all-time high Gallup approval rating of 46 percent. Certainly Keller would have won comfortably had Trump languished in the mid-30s. But the timing couldn't have been better, as it fed the narrative that the GOP was on solid footing in at least one part of Trump Country.

The other two special elections will take place in another purple state, North Carolina, on Sept. 10. As with PA-12, the result of the NC-3 race is a foregone conclusion. The seat has been reliably Republican since Rep. Walter Jones, Jr. - while representing NC-1 as a Democrat - switched parties, switched districts and defeated incumbent Rep. Martin Lancaster in 1994.

The late Jones's legacy as a popular representative, along with Trump's nearly 24-point victory here, makes Republican nominee Greg Murphy a shoo-in.

And soon, all eyes will be on the NC-09 race. Demographically - at least based on 2016 numbers - GOP nominee Dan Bishop should win handily. After all, Trump won here by more than 11 points.

But this is no ordinary race, as the numbers being used to assess partisan advantage in the district, not to mention the state, are seemingly antiquated. Democrat Dan McCready nearly took out Republican Mark Harris last November, losing by a little less than 1,000 votes.

 The impending do-over was prompted by the discovery of possible illegal activities benefiting the Harris campaign. While Bishop has replaced Harris for this special election, the GOP brand continues to face scrutiny due to ongoing investigations and court appearances into last year's alleged unlawful acts. 

Possibly more damaging are the changing demographics of North Carolina - and by extension, the ninth congressional district. This state continues to be viewed as "purple," and sometimes even "red." These descriptors are based on the fact that Republicans dominate the state legislature and U.S. House delegation while also occupying both Senate seats.

Their state legislature and U.S. House advantages are based largely on successful gerrymandering efforts. For example, Democrats actually won more House votes in 2012 despite claiming only four of the state's 13 seats. After losing by roughly 11 points in 2014, they closed the gap to seven points in 2016 and then two points in 2018 - despite winning only three seats.

While systemic institutional advantages favor the GOP, migration trends favor Democrats. From 2012 to 2016, a net of 187,000 people moved to the state. Where were they coming from? Most commonly Virginia, Florida, South Carolina and New York: two blue states, one purple state and one red state. Additionally, the large net state migration numbers were stemming from New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut: four blue and one purple.

Now, it's hard to know how many blue-state transplants are settling in NC-09. But based on migration trends, as well as Trump's net-negative approval rating in the state, along with ongoing investigations into electoral malfeasance, we cannot evaluate Bishop's electoral prospects based solely on favorable 2016 numbers or even less favorable 2018 numbers. 

He's facing headwinds that could not have been anticipated only a couple years ago.

This special election is shaping up to be a monumental test for Republicans seeking to weather an increasingly violent storm, and Democrats seeking a victory that would markedly alter people's perception of the state's politics heading into 2020.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University's Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.