What the North Carolina election in the 9th District foreshadows about 2020

The narrow Republican victory in suburban Charlotte is another sign the GOP is in trouble.
Dan McCready
Dan McCready, the Democratic nominee in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, at a news conference in Charlotte on May 15.Chuck Burton / AP file
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By Leah Askarinam

Update (Sept. 11, 11:40 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated throughout to reflect the outcome of Tuesday night's election in which the GOP retained its House seat.

Democrats were always going to see the results of the special election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District as a victory — even if their nominee lost.

Recent polling indicated a close race, even though President Donald Trump won the district by 12 points in 2016, with Hillary Clinton receiving less than 43 percent of the vote. Trump himself visited Fayetteville to support GOP candidate Dan Bishop on Monday evening in an effort to rally his base and help him scrape out a narrow win.

Recent polling indicates that a close race is on the horizon, despite the fact that President Donald Trump won the district by 12 points.

Overall spending has been close to even between the two parties. But Republican outside groups have needed to step in to help Bishop, who lagged behind Democrat Dan McCready in fundraising. As of Sept. 1, Republican outside groups had to pad Bishop’s spending with more than $6 million to defend the seat, according to Kantar/CMAG, nearly twice as much as outside Democratic groups spent aiding McCready.

The 9th District race has zero effect on control of the current Congress — a Democratic majority, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will continue to hold power in the House despite the GOP victory. But if formerly Republican voters in suburban Charlotte continue the trend from the midterm elections and cross the aisle with their votes, that could indicate the enthusiasm for Democrats endures and the GOP is in trouble.

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Indeed, the special election tests the theory that winning the House majority calmed suburban voters frustrated with Trump enough to diminish their political activism. That point of view hypothesizes that moderate and Independent voters, riled up after Trump won in 2016, not only feel vindicated after Republicans lost the majority in the midterms but are also out of steam after two years of constant political campaigning and activity

If that’s disproved, then campaign donations in normally GOP-leaning districts such as North Carolina’s 9th will continue to flow in for 2020. Even worse for Republicans, a loss could be another sign of a more fundamental shift toward Democrats in the suburbs.

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And that could place the House majority out of reach for Republicans in 2020. It’s virtually impossible for Republican outside groups to spend $6 million to defend each of the other 25 GOP incumbents representing suburban districts that Trump carried by 12 points or less. And, even if that were a sustainable strategy for protecting their incumbents, Republicans need to flip at least 19 additional seats that Democrats currently hold — a number that rises to 20 if they lose the 9th District on Tuesday — in order to regain the House.

Still, there’s only so much that Tuesday night’s results revealed about 2020.

It’s a special election for reasons that make it unique and, therefore, slightly less of a bellwether than it might otherwise be. Last year, Mark Harris, a pastor, ousted the Republican incumbent in the primary, then won a narrow victory over McReady in the general election. But the results were thrown out after a Republican operative was accused of election fraud. The North Carolina Board of Elections and Harris himself both called for Tuesday’s “redo” general election.

Harris declined to run again, and nominating a different candidate has given Republicans some distance from the election scandal. Harris had also not helped his party’s cause by making headlines for delivering sermons suggesting women should submit to their husbands — an inflammatory idea that likely drew the attention of national Democratic donors.

Bishop was largely able to run as a generic Republican who doesn’t ruffle too many feathers, using the typical GOP playbook in a district that historically favors his party. Bishop’s closing campaign ad, for example, features Trump praising him and drawing a contrast between Republican values and liberal radicals.

Bishop is perhaps best known as the GOP state senator who sponsored the “bathroom bill” directing transgender people in the state to use public bathrooms matching their gender at birth. But for this race, he campaigned in support of a wall along the Mexican border and against "Medicare for All."

If McCready, a Marine Corps veteran who started his own solar energy investment company, had won Tuesday, he would no longer have had the advantage of running as a political outsider in 2020. He’d be just like the other Democrat freshmen who had formerly been in law enforcement or the private sector but are now members of Congress — complete with voting records, public statements and the stench of Washington.

Republicans, meanwhile, could recruit a new crop of challengers — such as CEOs, news anchors and veterans — who make those once-political outsiders look like the new “establishment,” giving the GOP more hope for reclaiming traditionally red seats in 2020.

Bishop is perhaps best known as the GOP state senator who sponsored the “bathroom bill."

Still, it’s not good for Republicans that Trump won the district by 12 points and the special election results were so close. And since McCready had never held office and had no voting record, Republicans had a limited ability to use preferred campaign attacks like connecting him to polarizing Democratic figures such as Pelosi and “the squad” — the group of four progressive congresswomen of color who are routinely the target of GOP scorn.

In the end, according to calculations by political analyst Ryan Matsumoto, McCready ended up over performing in suburban Charlotte while losing support everywhere else. If the national environment is tough for the party today, it could get tougher against the backdrop of a competitive White House race, where presidential nominees spar over controversial issues such as Medicare for All and the word “socialism” has been weaponized.

The narrow margin of last night's race doesn’t mean that Democrats are destined to keep their House majority. And McCready's worsening performance outside the suburbs doesn’t mean that Trump will inevitably serve a single term as president. But Tuesday night’s results provide us with a few extra tea leaves to help read the political future.