SPONSORED:

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 HarrisTrump sparks debate over merits of voting by mail The Hill's Campaign Report: Debate over mail-in voting heats up Bevin says he lost because liberals are 'good at harvesting votes' in urban areas 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. 

ADVERTISEMENT

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 PenceTrump campaign files new post-certification lawsuit in Wisconsin Trump set for precedent-breaking lame-duck period Trump pardons Michael Flynn 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-CortezObama: You lose people with 'snappy' slogans like 'defund the police' The left's turn against freedom: Curb speech, ban books, make an 'enemies list' Manchin: Ocasio-Cortez 'more active on Twitter than anything else' MORE’s Green New Deal.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 TillisRep. Mark Walker announces Senate bid in North Carolina Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge 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 WarrenOn The Money: McConnell offering new coronavirus relief bill | Biden introduces economic team, vows swift action on relief | Rare Mnuchin-Powell spat takes center stage at COVID-19 hearing Biden introduces economic team, vows swift action on struggling economy Louisville mayor declares racism a public health crisis MORE and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSenate GOP's campaign arm rakes in M as Georgia runoffs heat up Biden, Harris to sit with CNN's Tapper in first post-election joint interview The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE will find the terrain more challenging than a candidate in the mold of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge 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".