Opinion

North Carolina redo sets stage for copycat campaigns in 2020

Battle of the Dans offers a test of how far loyalty to Trump will take you

The race between Republican Dan Bishop, left, and Democrat Dan McCready in North Carolina’s 9th District will serve as a preview of GOP attempts to win back seats they lost last year, Curtis writes. (Courtesy Bishop for Congress and Jeff Siner/The Charlotte Observer/AP file photo)

OPINION — After an election fraud scandal, North Carolina Republicans lost a House candidate. After an indictment and questions about possible bribery, the state GOP lost its chair.

But all that didn’t stop a gaggle of Republicans from vying for the chance to run for a House seat that, thanks to gerrymandering, still favors their party — that is, of course, if voters stay interested in a special election that now will be decided on Sept. 10, if everything goes as planned.

Whatever happens, the race has offered a national blueprint for what voters will see in 2020, with the majority of Republicans clinging close to Donald Trump and trying to brand Democrats as far to the left as imagination allows. Meanwhile, Democrats proclaim their independence and ability to stand up to the president and his bending of constitutional norms while doing the other business of Congress and helping constituents.

In North Carolina’s 9th District, state Sen. Dan Bishop avoided a runoff by taking close to 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s GOP primary, which featured a scrum of candidates whose primary mission was showing who was most loyal to Trump and his policies.

Bishop will next face Democrat Dan McCready, the former Marine who ran unopposed in his primary, and two third-party candidates. 

McCready was the Democratic nominee for the seat last fall when he at first appeared to have narrowly lost to Republican Mark Harris. An investigation of that election found irregularities and possible illegal activities regarding absentee ballots on behalf of Harris, a former Baptist pastor, and a do-over was ordered. Citing health issues, Harris bowed out of the special election.

Attacks fly

In a campaign that looked to the general, Bishop of Mecklenburg County broadcast TV ads that tried to link McCready with Democrats in Washington, such as the right’s favorite villain, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Expect to see his label for them, “clowns,” pop up again through the summer.

McCready’s team has labeled efforts to make him a part of some supposed Washington left-wing agenda as ridiculous, pointing to his pledges to work across the aisle. He also cited his military experience as proof of his ability to work with folks from different backgrounds. He’s been accused of being fuzzy on the details of his own positions, a charge sure to reappear between now and September.

The 9th District race drew national money, on behalf of different candidates. In primary debates, though, when it came to policy, the Republicans were emphatically on the same page. To answer the problem of gun violence, especially relevant in a state still mourning those killed and injured in a shooting at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the candidates’ solutions were more guns, in the hand of the “good guys” and increased mental health services.

Stony Rushing, a county commissioner in Union County, which also contains huge chunks of voters in the circuitous district, portrayed the scandal that brought down Harris as a hit job. (Harris had endorsed his candidacy.) The gun range owner emphasized gun rights and his pro-life credentials in the race, and landed in second place.

Bishop is the proud sponsor of North Carolina’s infamous “bathroom bill,” or HB2, which required people, in public buildings, to use bathrooms that matched the gender on their birth certificates. (The law has since been repealed.) He would like to move on from that legislation, which drove businesses and entertainment and sporting events from North Carolina before it was changed.

But McCready is reminding voters of that bill and the negative national and international attention it brought. And North Carolina Democrats won’t let anyone forget the scandal that caused the special election, which brought more negative attention to the state.

Turnout and passion

Yet Bishop’s HB2 stance might resonate with the GOP base. That’s important, as this race ultimately will be decided on turnout and passion. The September general election, though it will be closely watched, will clash with a new school year and more pressing concerns of those seeking a rest from politics. Democrats no doubt were hoping for a runoff, which would have pushed the general election to Nov. 5, coinciding with municipal elections in Charlotte, a heavily Democratic city.

No matter how low the turnout, the battle of the Dans will certainly preview 2020 races across the country, with Republicans trying to take down those first-term Democrats who won last fall in GOP-leaning districts, many of which Trump won in 2016, by portraying them as extreme. Some of those Democrats have already tried to insulate themselves from that line of attack, joining together to proclaim their independence and service to districts they represent.

Trump loyalty as a strategy in North Carolina, a politically divided state whose blue cities are constantly at odds with more conservative rural and suburban areas, is not a sure thing, though it makes more sense in congressional races, with gerrymandered districts being challenged in the courts.

Trump won North Carolina in 2016, yet Democrats wistfully remember President Barack Obama’s narrow win in 2008 and his narrow loss to Mitt Romney in 2012. So they have hope, though when Washington Democrats act cautiously in order not to scare away moderate Democrats, one of the places they are thinking about is North Carolina.

Though North Carolina’s embarrassingly delayed 9th District race failed to excite many voters Tuesday — turnout was less than 10 percent — expect to see copycat campaigns in a 2020 election season that will make 2016 look tame by comparison.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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