By tomorrow, one political party will be spiking the football — while the other insists that special elections mean nothing. North Carolinians in two congressional districts head to the polls today to fill two empty House seats. The contest in NC-03 to replace the late Republican Walter Jones isn’t expected to be competitive, but everyone has their eye on the do-over in NC-09:
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.
The district left open by Jones’ death is solidly Republicans and not viewed as a transitional district. It has a Cook Index of R+12 and Trump won it by 23 points three years ago. State representative Greg Murphy is cut from the mold of the House Freedom Caucus, whose leaders Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan have strongly endorsed him. Murphy raised less than a million dollars for this contest, but he’s up against former mayor Allen Thomas, a Democrat who raised even less money.
It’s so Republican that Jones ran unopposed in 2018 despite Democrats gaining momentum in the midterms; Jones won it by almost 35 points in 2016 and routinely won 63% or more of the vote in his previous six elections as well. Analysts will look at the GOP’s margin of victory to determine whether they should have any concerns, but any dip in it will almost certainly be written off to special-election mechanics and the loss of an incumbent.
The results in NC-09, however, will be much more meaningful as a harbinger for 2020. Trump and Mike Pence made sure of that by holding a rally for Bishop last night, cementing the impression that the special election will be a referendum on his performance:
President Trump went down to Dixie again in hopes of salvaging a North Carolina Congressional seat where a GOP candidate is locked in a tight special election battle.
Trump rallied a #MAGA crowd of thousands in Fayetteville Monday hours before polls opened Tuesday in the Ninth Congressional district race that is shaping up as a referendum on the president’s tumultuous first term. …
Vice President Mike Pence has also stumped for Bishop in an effort to boost turnout among his evangelical Christian base.
Trump kept up the effort with this all-caps reminder on Twitter:
NORTH CAROLINA, VOTE FOR DAN BISHOP TODAY. WE NEED HIM BADLY IN WASHINGTON!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 10, 2019
Worth noting: NC-09 has a Cook Index of R+8, but the 2018 election turned into a roller coaster for the GOP anyway. Mark Harris barely unseated incumbent Robert Pittenger with the help of contractor Leslie McRae Dowless, who then helped Harris barely beat McCready in the general election by 905 votes. However, it turned out that Dowless used illegal ballot harvesting in both the primary and the general election, and the entire result had to be thrown out.
Trump and Pence are betting that the rally and Bishop’s emergence as a “clean” nominee will reboot the district back to its Republican persuasion. A Democrat hasn’t won NC-09 since JFK got elected in 1960. Pittenger won his 2016 re-election bid by more than 16 points in 2016. This should not be a close election, so if McCready wins, it’s likely to be viewed as evidence that Democrats’ midterm momentum still exists. If Bishop wins — especially be a larger margin — then it will be portrayed by the GOP as a sign that the 2020 election will have Trumpmentum instead.