LAURINBURG, N.C. — Dan McCready is used to this.
“Y’all know this isn’t an easy race for a Democrat,” the candidate for North Carolina’s 9th District said, swatting away an army of gnats swarming attendees at a fish fry Friday night.
Having been on the campaign trail for two years, McCready has met many of these people before. He doesn’t look twice at the opposition tracker filming him from across the street, and he’s even perfected a line about just how long this campaign has been.
“I had three kids when this started, and now I’ve got four,” he said.
McCready lost this district, which President Donald Trump carried by 11 points in 2016, by less than a thousand votes last fall. But because of alleged election fraud tied to his 2018 GOP opponent’s campaign, he’s still at it, running against a different Republican in a redo election to be held Sept. 10.
It’s a special election with unique factors, but as the only competitive federal race in 2019, the contest is also a test of the messages Democrats and Republicans will use in 2020 — especially in a crucial battleground state.
Just as Democrats were in 2018, McCready is focused on health care. His Republican opponent, state Sen. Dan Bishop, who won a 10-way primary earlier this year, is trying to tie him to socialism and “the squad” — four freshman House Democrats who have become the new GOP boogeywomen.
“I represent your values; he does not,” Bishop, the sponsor of North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill,” told supporters Saturday.
The question that McCready’s first race posed — could a moderate Democrat win a “Trump district”? — has largely been answered by last year’s historic Democratic gains in the House.
But this year is different. Special elections are normally low-turnout affairs, so this race largely hinges on who can get their base to show up.
“The moveable middle is really small,” said North Carolina-based Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson, who’s helping McCready’s team.
The state GOP chairman, Michael Whatley, would not disagree.
“If we can get numbers to turn out that are fairly close to normal, or as close to normal as you can get in a special, then we think that the district will come home with Dan,” he said of the Republican nominee.
At a series of town halls over the weekend, McCready had a standard rhetorical question: “Anyone know how long it’s been since a Democrat held this seat?”
Fifty-six years, he told the largely sympathetic crowds.
McCready, whose slogan is “Country over party,” has to motivate his base, especially African American and Native American voters in the rural eastern part of the district, which stretches along the border with South Carolina. At the district’s western end, in the Charlotte suburbs, he has to appeal to affluent and well-educated voters of all affiliations who are turned off by Trump.
McCready has criticized Bishop for opposing Medicaid expansion in the state Legislature, but he’s staying away from the “Medicare for All” proposals coming from his party’s presidential candidates.
“We don’t need to do all this crazy stuff that they’re doing on the debate stage,” he told voters at a town hall in Pembroke.
McCready has kept those town halls largely focused on education and health care, but other national topics — recent mass shootings, the president’s rhetoric and immigration raids — come up often.
“We are in the grips of fascism,” an elderly man said Saturday afternoon at McCready’s campaign office in Bladen County, referring to last week’s immigration raids in Mississippi. He then made a comparison to Adolf Hitler, which drew nods and “uh-huhs” across the room.
McCready stayed relentlessly on message, using the remarks as an opportunity to talk about his military background and how he’s trying to bring people together.
“In terms of the hate, you’ve probably seen state Sen. Bishop’s clown ad,” the candidate said, referring to a spot in which McCready and other prominent Democratic lawmakers’ heads are superimposed on clowns’ bodies. “I just think people are tired of that.”
In an interview that evening, McCready — who does not support impeaching Trump — wouldn’t directly answer whether he thinks the president is a racist.
“His comments are inciting hate and encouraging white nationalists and folks to be showing their faces in ways that we wouldn’t have seen under a different president,” he told CQ Roll Call.
Some Democrats think the president’s recent rhetoric and the immigration raids might boost turnout for McCready.
But that may only go so far in a district that backed the president with 54 percent of the vote in 2016.
‘An attempted coup’
Bishop is running as a strong supporter of Trump. He appeared at a rally with the president earlier this summer, and his TV ads condemn Democrats for hating the president more than they love America.
“I do have moments and points of disagreement, but I think they’re minor,” Bishop said in an interview. He praised the president for withstanding the “Russia hoax” and said Trump was right to call it a “witch hunt.”
“Actually, I think it’s worse than that. I think it’s an attempted coup,” Bishop said.
Crisscrossing a subdivision of modest homes with tidy yards in Parkton on Saturday, Bishop and Whatley, the state party chairman, finally met a woman who not only came out of her house, but seemed to want to talk politics.
“Republican? Yes, that’s me. I’m a Trump supporter all the way,” she said.
“The president is 100 percent on board,” Whatley told her.
Congratulations to Dan Bishop on his big Republican Primary victory in the 9th Congressional District of North Carolina. Dan is strong on Crime, Loves our Military, Vets, 2A, and great Healthcare. He has my Complete and Total Endorsement! #MAGA
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2019
The most recently released poll in this race, conducted in mid-July, came from McCready’s campaign. It showed the race tied, with each candidate at 46 percent.
“You gotta realize, being tied in this district is like being 12 points up,” McCready told the town hall crowd in Pembroke. A big difference from 2018 is that he is trying to link his policy messages to the reason there’s another election — the effort by a consultant for his prior opponent to divert absentee ballots from who he suspected were Democratic voters.
“This is a race about voters whose voices were stolen,” McCready said.
His supporters hope the ballot fraud scandal will motivate turnout, especially among minorities.
“Our country is jacked up,” Rev. Brian R. Thompson told worshippers Sunday at Simon Temple AME Zion church in Fayetteville that McCready had come to address. “This election on Sept. 10 is the people’s chance to get justice.”
Also working to McCready’s advantage is the fact he’s been campaigning nonstop for two years, and he has the name recognition and fundraising to prove it. He ended the second quarter of the year with $1.8 million in the bank to Bishop’s $344,000.
Bishop thinks that’s changing, though.
Speaking to supporters over the weekend, he championed the combined $4 million in investments from the National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund.
“[That] goes a long way toward leveling the playing field,” he said. National Democrats, meanwhile, are intentionally keeping a low profile to avoid nationalizing the race.
Bishop dismissed the idea that national GOP groups invested because they’re worried.
“Their resources are pretty precious, so I don’t think they would have ventured in with substantial resources unless they saw it is likely that we’re going to win,” he told CQ Roll Call.
Both sides expect the race to be tight, and whichever way it goes, each party will use the outcome to shape its 2020 narrative about North Carolina, which, besides hosting the Republican National Convention in Charlotte next summer, will also be a key presidential and Senate battleground.