It may not be 2020 yet, but in North Carolina — which is holding two House contests Tuesday — it might as well be an election year already.
As the Democratic presidential circus continues to steal national headlines, voters are going to the polls for special elections in two longtime Republican districts — one because election fraud invalidated last year’s result and the other because the sitting congressman died.
The outcome of North Carolina’s competitive 9th District election — which is a redo of last fall’s race with a new GOP nominee — will shape the political discussion in the nation’s capital just as lawmakers are returning from their late-summer recess.
Recent polls have shown Democrat Dan McCready either narrowly leading or tied with Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop, the sponsor of the state’s controversial “bathroom bill.” A McCready victory would increase the net number of seats Republicans need to retake the House in 2020 from 19 to 20. That deficit could further depress GOP members already considering retirement as they contemplate another term in the minority.
Even if McCready comes close and fails, the GOP outside spending needed to defend a district that President Donald Trump carried by 12 points in 2016 harks back to special House elections in 2017, when angst about the president helped Democrats narrow their margins in a number of districts, ultimately foreshadowing the enthusiasm that helped them win the House last year.
North Carolina’s 3rd District, vacant since Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones died in February, isn’t supposed to be competitive this year or next, but both parties will be watching the GOP margin of victory to see how close it is to Trump’s 23-point win there.
The attention on these two longtime Republican seats doesn’t rival the attention on the special elections of early 2017, when Trump was in his first term. But this summer’s political activity in North Carolina is just a precursor to 2020, when the Tar Heel State will be a battleground at the House, Senate and presidential level.
The 9th District
The redo election in North Carolina’s 9th District — which stretches along the South Carolina border from the Charlotte suburbs toward Fayetteville — is the last election of 2018. And the messages on the airwaves feel like it. Democrats are talking about health care nonstop, while the Republican is going all in on his support for Trump.
This is the race that never ended. When last fall’s voting was over, McCready trailed Republican Mark Harris by 905 votes. But the results were never certified because of allegations of election fraud tied to a consultant for the Harris campaign. After an investigation and public hearings, the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Harris himself called for a new election. (The consultant, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., has been charged with felony obstruction of justice and absentee ballot possession, among other things.)
By that point, though, McCready already had a significant head start in fundraising and name identification. He’s sustained that cash advantage, raising more than $5.8 million to Bishop’s $2 million, according to their latest 48-hour reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Even though Bishop’s ads have received national attention because they tie McCready to socialism and the four Democratic freshmen known as “the squad,” Republican outside groups have come in big for their nominee with a different message.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the Congressional Leadership Fund and the Club for Growth have spent more than $6 million, mostly accusing McCready of enriching himself at taxpayers’ expense through his solar energy business. A series of ads from the NRCC calls him “McGreedy,” while CLF has dubbed him “Greedy Dan McCready.”
McCready, a Marine veteran, has been relentlessly focused on health care and education. Democrats have attacked Bishop for being the only senator to vote against legislation that would allow pharmacists to discuss lower-cost alternative drugs with their patients.
Bishop has argued he voted for a similar bill in the North Carolina Senate but didn’t vote for the state House version because he had floor duties and didn’t have time to read the updated version of the two-page bill.
Although he’s used the likes of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in his fundraising emails, McCready — who said he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker during last year’s election and doesn’t support impeaching Trump — has tried to carve out a moderate profile. He’s staying far 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 last month.
National Democrats have kept a low profile in this race, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spending about $1.2 million on TV ads through its independent expenditure arm and investing in on-the-ground engagement with minority voters.
The candidates have met in just one debate, where they stuck to familiar attack lines. There’s been limited polling released in this race. The most recent survey, commissioned by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, showed McCready leading Bishop 46 percent to 42 percent.
Trump carried the 9th District with 54 percent of the vote in 2016, but the same poll showed 47 percent of voters here approved of his job performance compared to 48 percent who disapproved.
Bishop is leaning on Trump to help turn out conservative voters, especially in the rural counties.
McCready needs to win over moderate voters in the Charlotte suburbs who are turned off by the president, while hoping that minority voters in the east turn out. The board of elections extended early voting hours over the weekend to make up for closures in four counties as the result of Hurricane Dorian last week.
Inside Elections rates the race a Toss-up.
The 3rd District
As a safe Republican seat, this coastal district has attracted much less attention than the 9th District.
The main event here was the GOP primary, which started as a 17-way contest in April and finished as a proxy war between the political arm of House Freedom Caucus, which backed a male surgeon, and all the Republican women in the House, who backed a female pediatrician. Outside groups dedicated to electing GOP women celebrated getting Joan Perry into the runoff but she eventually lost what became a Trump loyalty contest by double digits to state Rep. Greg Murphy.
Murphy is likely to be the next member of the Freedom Caucus. Despite differences in opinion over state Medicaid expansion, he ran with strong backing from North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the caucus, and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the vice chairman.
Murphy is up against Democrat Allen Thomas, the former mayor of Greenville. Murphy has raised about $975,000 to Thomas’ $569,000 as of last week. With so much attention on the other North Carolina district, there’s been especially little data here. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Republican.