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North Carolina race raises 2020 red flags for Republicans, Democrats

Both parties have waited eagerly for the outcome of Tuesday’s odd special election in North Carolina’s ninth congressional district.  The contest was necessitated by the state’s board of elections when it nullified Republican Mark HarrisMark HarrisHillicon Valley: Intelligence agency gathers US smartphone location data without warrants, memo says | Democrats seek answers on impact of Russian hack on DOJ, courts | Airbnb offers Biden administration help with vaccine distribution Trump sparks debate over merits of voting by mail The Hill's Campaign Report: Debate over mail-in voting heats up MORE’s 905-vote “win” over Democrat Dan McCready early this year. The decision was based upon evidence that a GOP-allied operative, McCrae Dowless, had illegally harvested absentee ballots from a number of the district’s rural voters. This was the first time since 1974 that the country witnessed a “do-over” congressional race.

Many political analysts feel the contest is a harbinger of the 2020 elections — even though it was formally a culminating skirmish to the 2018 midterms. The victory of Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop, who replaced Harris when the latter’s candidacy became untenable with the discovery of its connections to Dowless, has been met with sighs of relief from House Republicans and the Trump administration. 

The Ninth is prime Trump territory, a microcosm of the affluent suburbs and rural working-class areas that he needs to win by large numbers nationwide. It stretches from Bishop’s home in the country-club suburbs of southeastern Charlotte eastward to Dowless’s hardscrabble Bladen County and, slightly north of there, to the city of Fayetteville, home of the Army’s Fort Bragg and a place steeped in military tradition. 

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Along the way it passes through Union County, a white middle-class booming exurb that is about the most Republican kind of place you could imagine in the South. Home of former Sen. Jesse Helms, no GOP statewide candidate got less than 63 percent of the vote there in 2016. Trump won the district by twelve percentage points.

A plurality of the district’s voters are registered Democrats, but McCready recognized its true politics. A former Marine, he campaigned as a pragmatist and problem-solver, interested in “kitchen-table” issues and ignoring the liberal agenda pushed by most of his party’s presidential candidates and many in the House Democratic freshman class. He also avoided much of Bishop’s legislative record in the state senate, including the infamous “bathroom bill” that was universally decried on the left as an attack on the rights of transgender individuals. He kept his head down and continued to work through what ended up being an interminably long campaign.

The state and national Democrats saw an opportunity and invested heavily. Of the nearly $18 million plowed into the race by campaign donors and outside groups, McCready benefitted from about half — he enjoyed an approximately $5 million-to-$2 million lead in direct contributions that Bishop offset by a roughly $7 million-to-$4 million advantage in outside spending. All the usual Washington suspects ran ads.

Trump helped make the race a referendum on his party and himself. He has called North Carolina a “top-tier priority” in next year’s election, and the Republican National Convention will be held in Charlotte in August. One of his last-minute stops during the 2018 campaign was to the district for a Harris event. Hurricane Dorian became a focus of his administration last week.

In the end the district was not directly affected by the storm, but North Carolinians are acutely aware of their danger and the importance of government response when they hit. Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceOvernight Health Care: Senate to vote on .9 trillion relief bill this week | J&J vaccine rollout begins | CDC warns against lifting restrictions Haley praises Trump CPAC speech after breaking with him over Capitol riot Republican Ohio Senate candidate calls on GOP rep to resign over impeachment vote MORE visited the Charlotte area on Monday and Trump went to Fayetteville for a typically energetic election-eve rally. Bishop and supporters repeatedly linked McCready to the leftist policy ambitions of the “Squad,” not least by way of the candidate’s renewable energy company and Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - J&J vax rollout today; third woman accuses Cuomo 'Lucky': Inside Ocasio-Cortez's endorsement of Sanders Biden officials urge patience on immigration amid border surge MORE’s Green New Deal.

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It’s unclear whether Trump helped Bishop much. Any analysis about the relative turnout of the parties’ bases is difficult because of the unusual circumstances. Worryingly for Democrats, McCready’s vote in rural areas dipped a bit from 2016. Following the Trump-Pence visits, Bishop won the election-day vote by over 11,000, but that was not too surprising since in North Carolina Democrats dominate “early” with absentee voting, while Republicans tend to wait and cast their votes in the conventional way.

More worryingly for the GOP, there was a swing of ten percentage points away from Trump, who won the district by 12 points in 2016. The Republican candidate – admittedly an incumbent – won the district by 16 points that year. Bishop did not quite win 60 percent of the Union County vote. Swings of this magnitude suggest North Carolina is looking purple.

If the Tar Heel state is the last Trump wins next year, he'll probably be at about 225 electoral votes — Florida and much of the Rust Belt have gone. There is also no immediate path to the majority for House Republicans. Meanwhile, Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisMcConnell backs Garland for attorney general GOP senators demand probe into Cuomo's handling of nursing home deaths CNN anchor confronts GOP chairman over senator's vote to convict Trump MORE’s North Carolina Senate seat will likely become competitive. The GOP majority in the lower body of the General Assembly might also be endangered. State legislatures will be drawing new district maps after the next election.

Much will depend on whom Democrats nominate. With its large and but quite conservative African-American population, military heritage, and cultural traditionalism, cosmopolitan liberals like, say, Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Health Care: Biden says US will have enough vaccine for all adults by end of May | Biden calls on all states to vaccinate teachers by the end of March | Texas, Mississippi lift mask mandates Biden picks for financial agencies offer preview of regulatory agenda Becerra tells Warren he will do 'thorough review' of executive actions on drug prices MORE and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisElla Emhoff, inauguration designer join forces on knitwear collaboration Who is the Senate parliamentarian and why is she important? In America, women are frontliners of change MORE will find the terrain more challenging than a candidate in the mold of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenIntercept bureau chief: minimum wage was not 'high priority' for Biden in COVID-19 relief South Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Obama alum Seth Harris to serve as Biden labor adviser: report MORE. Regardless, the result of this most special of special elections is food for thought as we accelerate into the 2020 campaign. 

Andrew J. Taylor is professor of political science and director of the Free and Open Societies Project in the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University. Among his books are "The Floor in Congressional Life" and "Congress: A Performance Appraisal".