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

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

Whatever the results of Tuesday’s election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, expect Democrats to call it a victory — even if their nominee loses.

Recent polling indicates 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 is scheduled to head to Fayetteville to support GOP candidate Dan Bishop on Monday evening in an effort to rally his base.

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 will have zero effect on control of the current Congress — a Democratic majority, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will continue to hold power in the House no matter the results. 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.

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 will reveal 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 has largely been 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.”

And if McCready, a Marine Corps veteran who started his own solar energy investment company, wins on Tuesday, he will no longer have the advantage of running as a political outsider in 2020. He’ll 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 is looking close. And since McCready has never held office and has no voting record right now, Republicans have 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.

If McCready loses by more than a few points on Tuesday, on the other hand, Democrats have some cause for concern. 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.

If McCready wins, it doesn’t mean that Democrats are destined to keep their House majority. If Republicans lose, it doesn’t mean that Trump will inevitably serve a single term as president. But Tuesday night’s results could provide us with a few extra tea leaves to help read the political future.

Leah Askarinam

Leah Askarinam is a political reporter and analyst currently with Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of campaigns for Senate, House, governor and president. She’s contributed to FiveThrtyEight’s election coverage and was formerly an assistant editor at The Atlantic. 

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