The people of North Carolina's 9th district — who have been without a representative in Congress for nearly five months — will have one sooner than first expected, with the do-over election now set for September 10.
State Sen. Dan Bishop convincingly won the Republican primary outright on Tuesday, netting almost half the vote in a ten candidate field and avoiding the runoff that was expected at the outset. He'll now face off against Democrat Dan McCready, the 2018 nominee who was unopposed again. The redo comes after last November's vote was plagued by allegations of election fraud and absentee ballot tampering by a contractor for then-GOP nominee Mark Harris. The Baptist minister had appeared to eke out a win over McCready by just 905 votes, but earlier this year the state board of elections ordered another vote.
Republicans have gotten good news ever since then — first with the radioactive Harris deciding not to run again and then Bishop being able to win the nomination outright this week. That meant the conclusion of the race wouldn't be delayed until November 2019, coinciding with local elections in Mecklenburg County which could have given Democrats a boost, in addition to letting McCready get even more of a head start.
Now, both parties have their candidates in place for what seems like the never-ending congressional race — the lone holdout from the 2018 cycle that will determine whether or not Republicans need 18 or 19 seats in order to win back the majority (still a daunting task either way).
We're keeping this contest in the Toss Up column for now, but these latest developments are all encouraging signs for Republicans. Ultimately, they're defending a seat that is still very red in nature, even if the oddities that preceded another vote still leaves quite a bit in limbo to give Democrats an opening.
President Trump won this district by 12 points, which takes in the south Charlotte suburbs and stretches east to Fayetteville, and it has a PVI of R+8. Some of the suburban parts of the district haven't shifted as far toward Democrats as others outside major metro areas did in 2018, and Bishop will need to run up totals in heavily Republican Union County and the more rural areas in what's expected to be a low turnout election, just as this past Tuesday's primary was.
And even winning this seat in November would have been an upset for Democrats. It would have been the 4th most Republican seat they picked up, ranking behind NY-22, OK-05 and SC-01.
2018 Democratic Pick Ups
McCready, a Marine Corps veteran, has exactly the type of background Democrats were successful running across the country last year, and he was a highly-touted recruit early on. The Iraq War veteran didn't just have military service, but he had a business pedigree too by launching a solar farm business, a growing industry in the Tar Heel State. Harris was also a controversial nominee probably too far to the right for this seat after ousting incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger in the primary even before the ensuing ballot ignominy. So, there were plenty of reasons McCready had an advantage last November, and it will never be truly known how much the absentee ballot harvesting in the more rural counties impacted the count.
But dynamics change when such a contest is the only game in town, and this race feels destined to become nationalized in some way. McCready won't have the benefit of a blue wave at his back, and Republicans are eager to link him to the more progressive elements of the party. They see this as a testing ground for their 2020 message — tying candidates to socialism, Medicare for All, late-term abortion, the Green New Deal, the push for Trump's impeachment and more. It's no coincidence that one of Bishop's primary ads already featured Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Maxine Waters, among others. Republicans argue that Bishop was able to avoid taking positions or evade questions during the first round, and he won't be able to do so again with the spotlight all on this race. All those things together are the type of message that should resonate in this district, but if it doesn't Republicans may need to re-evaluate their 2020 messaging. And it could reinforce that they may haven't drawn the right takeaways from their 40 seat loss — 41 if they lose this seat.
But Bishop himself is a controversial figure. He was the chief sponsor of HB2 in 2016, the so-called "bathroom bill" that sparked state protests and nationwide backlash for forcing transgender people to use the restroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate, instead of their gender identity. The ensuing outrage resulted in companies pulling business from the state, and that's something McCready and Democrats will certainly point to. It's a hot-button issue that is tailor-made for fundraising that will help pad McCready's already flush coffers. But don't expect Democrats to make that the biggest issue when they're attacking Bishop. They're planning to go back to their 2018 playbook — hitting the Republican over health care votes in the state legislature, particularly on prescription drug costs and pre-existing conditions. And with Trump sometimes floating some type of Obamacare overhaul or fix and congressional Republicans still without a viable plan, it's not clear they've learned the lessons of the midterms on this issue.
Still, Bishop shouldn't be counted out, and he's regarded as a savvy and talented politician even by some Democrats in the state. He survived the blue wave in Mecklenburg County last fall, being the only Repulican re-elected in the county. And as Decision Desk HQ's J. Miles Coleman noted, Bishop won his state senate district by 6 points while McCready beat Harris in the same area by 9 points. He's already self-funded and is expected to put in more. Plus, outside groups are already lining up to help him, such as the Club For Growth, which endorsed him in the primary, and given the importance of the race more conservatives will surely follow.
If Republicans can nationalize this race, Bishop may gain the advantage. Much like in the 2017 special election in Georgia's 6th district in the Atlanta suburbs, once so much outside money poured in and the GOP successfully linked Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff to the national party, they were victorious.
But McCready is no Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker who was hurt by living outside of the district and, in hindsight, wasn't that great of a candidate. McCready more closely seems to align with now-Rep. Conor Lamb's March 2018 victory in what was then Pennsylvania's 18th district. Other candidates came close and overperformed, but Lamb was the lone Democrat to flip a special election during the first two years of Trump's term. And it came in a district that the president had carried by 19 points and had a PVI of R+11. Lamb was also a Marine veteran who ran a stellar campaign, but GOP nominee Rick Saccone was also an incredibly poor candidate. Like Saccone, Bishop does have a legislative record Democrats will exploit, but Bishop still appears to be a far better candidate. Neither are perfect analogies — and no two special elections are of course created equal — but both also offer some hints of how the 9th District contest could play out.
McCready has been able to sail above the scandal that's plagued this district for months now while Republicans try to figure out who their nominee would be, becoming almost the de facto incumbent without any of the legislative baggage or a D.C. voting record. The Democrat has a net positive rating of 16 points in private polling with just under a quarter of the electorate undecided. Republican ads will need to hammer him to drive those way down. But Republicans could still be damaged by the drama — and others that have enveloped the North Carolina GOP, although the impact may have dissipated some the more time that passes.
The oddities of this race are enough to keep it in Toss Up for now. The onus is on Republicans to keep this seat that, at its heart, is still a GOP district, in their column. But Democrats still have a real shot to stop them. The next few months will be crucial in telling whether their strategy to turn around the narrative of the midterms may work, but in order to make gains in 2020, they'll need it to work in a district far tougher than this one.
Image Credit: Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer via AP, Chuck Burton