If Democrats are going to flip North Carolina’s 9th District this week, they need minority voters in the rural, eastern part of the district to vote.
That’s why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has spent more than a million dollars on this toss-up race through its independent expenditure arm, has also been doing more under-the-radar work to study these voters and find effective ways to talk to them.
“It’s a major reason why we are in a position to compete in a place where Donald Trump won by 12 points,” said Antjuan Seawright, president of Blueprint Strategy and a senior adviser to the DCCC.
The 9th District is holding a special election on Tuesday that is a redo of the November 2018 contest. Republican Mark Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes last fall, but the results were never certified because of allegations of election fraud tied to the Harris campaign. Now McCready is facing off against GOP state Sen. Dan Bishop, and recent polls have shown a close race with either McCready narrowly ahead or tied. African-American voters supported McCready over Bishop 83 to 6 percent in a recent Inside Elections poll of the 9th District. The margin of error was plus or minus 7.9 percentage points.
Harris carried just two of the district’s eight counties last year, and Bishop is hoping to turn up those same conservative voters in rural counties. That’s why he’s having a rally with Trump on the eve of the election. McCready needs to woo moderate Republicans and independents in the Charlotte suburbs, but in order to win in a district this Republican, he needs to motivate Democratic base voters in the east. In North Carolina, that means African Americans and Native Americans.
“One of the things we knew we had to do was ask before we act,” Seawright said. “We don’t want to get into the business of telling African American voters what’s important to them.”
Minority voters said they’ve felt left out of the Democratic Party, Seawright said. “That is an alarm bell for us, which means we have more work to do very quickly to make sure we’re inclusive.”
In North Carolina, the DCCC contracted with Vision Strategy and Insights, a minority- and women-owned research firm, to conduct three focus groups in early July. The efforts and the ensuing digital and radio ad campaign are part of the DCCC’s “Cycle of Engagement,” which launched in June as a follow-up to 2018’s “Year of Engagement” program to reach out to minority and young voters.
Some of the findings from the focus group surprised even Seawright, who also hails from the South. Minority voters don’t like Trump. But they need to hear about more than Trump to increase their motivation to vote.
“Donald Trump is not the thing that moves them in the way people think,” Seawright said.
Ads Go Local
Another surprise to Seawright, who produced ads for African American radio in the district, was that national figures or celebrities aren’t necessarily the most effective messengers. Rural minority voters didn’t have much awareness of national political figures, suggesting to the researchers that local community leaders may be better surrogates.
In line with those findings, the DCCC ran digital ads with community members holding up handwritten signs with the date of the special election, reminding viewers to show up.
“This is our chance to be heard. So vote Tuesday, Sept. 10th,” says the Rev. Melvin Leroy Tate, the pastor at Mount Calvary A.M.E. Zion Church in Monroe, N.C., in one 30-second ad. Terrance Green, a partner at the firm 4CM+M, produced the ads.
The biggest concern expressed in the focus groups was that the local economy isn’t working for minorities. Finding employment was difficult, with higher-paying opportunities often out of reach because of the transportation needed to get there. Some people said they had decided not to work because transportation or child care costs were too high to make it worth it. They said the cost of health care contributed to their financial instability.
Participants in the focus groups also bemoaned the local education system, saying its reputation was so bad that employers often choose not to hire locally — or to pay workers from outside the area more.
McCready’s campaign has largely stuck to health care and education as its central message. He talks about the president when asked, but he’s not calling for impeachment and doesn’t often bring up Trump unprompted.
As the only competitive federal election of the year, North Carolina’s 9th District is a good testing ground for the “ask before act” strategy that Seawright is pushing.
“We will take that approach all cycle long,” he said.
African American lawmakers sharply criticized the DCCC for a lack of diversity among senior staff this summer. That led to senior staff departures at the end of July. Activists and consultants have also criticized the committee’s policy of blacklisting firms that work for primary challengers to incumbents, arguing that it sometimes ends up excluding minority-run firms.
Seawright, himself African American, maintains that diversity in staff and vendors is a top priority for the DCCC. He said the committee is working to “build a pipeline of talent” so that “more businesses of color find themselves at the table and not necessarily on the menu.”