Republicans narrowly averted disaster on Tuesday night as GOP state Sen. Dan Bishop eked out a 51 percent to 49 percent win over Democrat Dan McCready in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, where an absentee ballot fraud scandal last fall required a new election. But Tuesday's results were nothing to brag about: Bishop and Republican groups spent over $6 million to barely hang onto a district President Donald Trump had carried by 12 points.
Bishop's win, along with GOP state Rep. Greg Murphy's expected victory in North Carolina's 3rd District, leaves the House with 235 Democrats, 199 Republicans and one Independent — Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. That means Republicans will need to gain 19 seats to win the House back next fall — a task made more difficult by GOP retirements that have enhanced Democratic pick-up opportunities, especially in Texas.
Here are five takeaways from Republicans' narrow escape in North Carolina's 9th District:
1) The results are bad news for Trump.
Despite the president's Twitter victory lap, Tuesday's photo finish illustrates that the political environment hasn't gotten much better for Republicans since the 2018 midterms. Bishop lost Charlotte suburbs Trump had carried in 2016, even though Bishop hails from those suburbs and carried them on his way to re-election to the state senate as recently as last fall.
If Trump were to replicate Bishop's performance all over the state next November, he'd clearly lose North Carolina — a state critical to his re-election path. It's also clear that to match his 2016 success, Trump will need a Democratic opponent he can demonize much more effectively than McCready, a moderate Marine Corps veteran who downplayed social issues like abortion and emphasized high prescription drug costs.
2) The results are good news for Democrats' House majority.
Although a loss would have been disastrous for GOP morale, Bishop's win won't do anything to persuade House Republicans — many of whom are on the fence about running again in 2020 — that they're in position to take back control next year. According to the Cook Report's Partisan Voter Index, there are 35 GOP-held seats less Republican than North Carolina's 9th District.
3) Trump's popularity with his base hasn't proven transferable.
Trump held an Election Eve rally for Bishop in Fayetteville, but Bishop still underperformed Trump's margin in the district by 10 points. It's a sign that, just as in 2018, many Trump voters aren't jazzed about showing up for down-ballot GOP politicians when Trump's not on the ballot himself. The silver lining for red-seat Republicans: Trump will be back on the ballot next fall.
4) The key to Bishop's victory may have been a local Native American tribe.
One of the most economically distressed places in North Carolina is Robeson County, home to the Lumbee Tribe and a sixth of the 9th District's population. By party registration, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a massive 60 percent to 13 percent. But in 2016, Trump's appeal to "forgotten" America helped him carry the county by 4 points.
In 2018, Robeson County reverted to form, voting for McCready by a healthy 15 points. According to one local source, McCready benefited from a Lumbee Democrat running for the state House on the same ballot last fall. But on Tuesday, McCready won Robeson County by just 1 point, potentially costing him victory. An analysis by J. Miles Coleman showed the biggest swing occurred in heavily Lumbee precincts.
So how did Bishop, whose Charlotte-area state Senate district is nowhere near Robeson County, do so well there? It turns out that in March, when Bishop was just launching his bid for the do-over congressional election, he sponsored a bill to open more grant opportunities for the Lumbees by clarifying state recognition of the tribe. Bishop's picture appeared in the Robesonian, and it likely paid off on Tuesday.
5) It's hard to lose money betting on a widening metro vs. rural divide.
McCready exceeded his 2018 showing in the Charlotte suburbs of Mecklenburg County, stretching his margin from 9 to 12 points. And he matched his 2018 showing in Union County, which contains Charlotte's more conservative exurbs. But in the six more rural counties, McCready underperformed last fall's showing significantly.
This widening gap is the same pattern we've observed in virtually every House special election held in the past five years. And it suggests that 2020 is likely to continue that trend: to beat Trump, Democrats will need to nominate a candidate who can capitalize on the president's increasingly toxic standing in prosperous suburbs without losing too many small town and rural voters, like those in Robeson County.