North Carolina’s ‘battle of the Dans’ tests suburban revolt against Trump

Why We Wrote This

Suburban women fueled the Democratic takeover of the House last November. Tuesday’s special election in a GOP-leaning district may provide another window into the partisan realignment taking place ahead of 2020.

Alan Fram/AP
Democratic House candidate Dan McCready talks to volunteers at his campaign office in Waxhaw, North Carolina, Sept. 7, 2019. National Democratic and Republican leaders are watching Tuesday’s special election for early clues about next year’s presidential and congressional races.

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North Carolina has long flirted with being a purple state. It went for Barack Obama by a sliver in 2008, but went red in the next two presidential races. The governor is a Democrat; both senators are Republicans.

Which explains why both parties are treating Tuesday’s special election for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District as a bellwether for 2020. The House seat has gone unfilled since January, after the midterm election results were thrown out amid allegations of election fraud. 

Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate who’s now been running for 27 months straight, is a political newcomer and military veteran whose pitch has centered largely on biography and kitchen-table issues, with the campaign slogan “country over party.” Republican candidate Dan Bishop has wrapped himself in President Donald Trump’s mantle, calling himself a “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-wall” conservative. Lest there be any doubt whom this contest is really about, Mr. Trump is holding a rally in Fayetteville Monday night. 

Given the composition of the district, Mr. Bishop should win, says Susan Roberts, a political scientist at Davidson College in Davidson, north of Charlotte. But if Mr. McCready ekes out a victory, “that will turn North Carolina into a battleground.” 

Sandra Perry always votes – usually Democratic, sometimes Republican – but has never been involved in a campaign, until now. She spent the weekend door-knocking for Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate in Tuesday’s hotly contested special House election in North Carolina. 

“I had to,” says the 60-something Ms. Perry, who lives in Indian Trail, near Charlotte. “I cried when Donald Trump was elected. I’m against everything he stands for – misogyny, racism, ecologically ruining the planet.”

This House election, in her view, is a chance to fight back. 

Suburban women were key to the Democratic takeover of the House last November, helping to flip Republican districts across the country. And it is suburban women like Ms. Perry – and the voters she hopes she’s persuaded to turn out – who could spell the difference in the toss-up race for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. The seat has gone unfilled since January, after the midterm election results were thrown out amid allegations of election fraud on the part of Republican campaign operatives. 

Both parties are treating the do-over election as a bellwether for 2020. Outside groups have poured a near-record $10.7 million into TV ads. Republican candidate Dan Bishop has wrapped himself in President Trump’s mantle, calling himself a “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-wall” conservative. 

And lest there be any doubt whom this contest is really about, Mr. Trump himself is holding a rally in the district Monday night, in Fayetteville. Vice President Mike Pence held a rally earlier in the day for Mr. Bishop, a state senator. 

“This is a district Democrats should not win,” says Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, noting that Mr. Trump won the district in 2016 by 12 percentage points. 

The tight polls “show us that the dynamics in the 2018 midterms haven’t dissipated very much – that the suburban revolt against Trump is still going on at full force,” says Professor Heberlig. “That’s a red flashing danger signal to Republicans in those districts, and Republicans who need those votes to win statewide elections.”

North Carolina has long flirted with being a purple state. It went for Barack Obama by a sliver in 2008, but went red in the next two presidential races. The governor is a Democrat, but both its senators are Republicans. There are other signs the state is trending purple, including the fact that all nine county commissioners for Mecklenburg County, which encompasses Charlotte, are now Democrats. The 9th District includes south Charlotte. 

Tuesday’s race contains echoes of two other recent special House elections – one in Georgia, the other in Pennsylvania. The 2017 Georgia special, in a solidly suburban district, went to the Republican, but in the 2018 midterms, the Democrat won the district. 

The Pennsylvania special in early 2018 was in a district more like North Carolina’s 9th in its diversity, both economically and ethnically, with wealthier sections in and near the city and stretching out into rural, poorer areas. (In the North Carolina race, some 8% of the district is Native American.) And as in Pennsylvania, the Democratic nominee – Mr. McCready – is a young political newcomer and a military veteran. In Pennsylvania, Democrat Conor Lamb won a district that Mr. Trump had carried by almost 20 points. If Mr. McCready wins on Tuesday, he will be the first Democrat to represent the district since 1963. 

“Y’all, that’s like JFK times,” Mr. McCready told a get-out-the-vote rally in Charlotte last Friday. 

A fresh start for the GOP

For North Carolina Republicans, it’s a time of fresh starts. As of June, the state party has a new chairman, after the previous chair – a former congressman – was indicted on bribery charges. And there’s a fresh candidate running for the 9th District seat, after Mark Harris, an evangelical pastor who was the 2018 nominee, declined to run in the do-over election, citing health reasons. 

At a GOP unity event Saturday in a bucolic setting outside Charlotte, the new party leadership gathered with activists from the area and Young Republican leaders for a pep talk from Mr. Bishop and Tommy Hicks Jr., a Trump insider and co-chair of the Republican National Committee. T-shirts advertised “The Right Dan.” Carolina pulled pork was on the menu, followed by canvassing across the district to get out the vote. 

In an interview, Mr. Bishop addressed the challenge of winning back suburban women who have left the Republican fold. First, he pledged to comport himself “in a way that will be appealing.” Then he turned to the president. 

“Everybody has a different style, to the point that some have found President Trump’s rhetoric distasteful,” Mr. Bishop says. But “there’s a counterpoint to that: The hostility to him from official sources is so uniform that he must do something unusual.”

By “official sources,” he says, he means Democrats, the media, and agencies of the federal government itself.

“His personality – it’s almost like he’s uniquely suited to face that storm,” Mr. Bishop says. “And so I think all that has to be taken into context.”

Mr. Bishop also points to a key difference between Tuesday’s special and the original election. When Mr. McCready ran last November, he was part of the Democratic drive to retake the House. Now, having succeeded, the party has a larger, more diverse caucus, including new young members who aren’t shy about their left-wing views. Republican campaign ads have tried to lash the moderate Mr. McCready to Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

“On the campaign trail, I hear consistently from people who say they’re shocked or frightened by the ideas that are emanating from the mainstay of the Democratic Party,” he says. “One is the open embrace of socialism.” 

Before this campaign, Mr. Bishop was best known as the author of the so-called bathroom bill in the state legislature, which required transgender people to use the restroom that correlates with the gender on their birth certificate. The law cost the state billions of dollars in lost revenue and was ultimately revised in federal court. 

Mr. Bishop says his only regret about the bill is that “the city of Charlotte precipitated an unnecessary controversy.” He also came in for criticism over a $500 investment in 2017 in a “free speech” website, Gab.com, popular with white supremacists. Mr. Bishop denies he knowingly invested in a site that promotes hate. A group of anti-Trump conservatives known as Stand Up Republic, started by former presidential candidate Evan McMullin, has publicized the Gab controversy with advertising in the district. 

‘The other Dan’

If Mr. McCready wins election to the House, he will hardly join “the squad,” which includes Ms. Omar and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. The Democrat’s pitch has centered largely on biography and kitchen-table issues, foremost health care, with the campaign slogan “country over party.” Before he got into politics, he co-founded a successful solar energy fund, and before that, he served two tours in Iraq as a Marine captain. In the 2018 midterms, he was part of a slate of moderate Democratic military vets to run, with many taking over Republican districts. 

On the stump, Mr. McCready doesn’t mention Mr. Trump. But allusions to the president suffuse his campaign. “This is a character election, as all elections must now be,” said Democratic state Sen. Jeff Jackson, also a military vet, in introducing Mr. McCready at the Friday rally. 

Mr. Jackson also jokes that Mr. McCready has been running for this congressional seat so long – 27 months now – that the candidate’s fourth child was conceived, was born, and has learned to walk, all during this seemingly endless campaign. 

Mr. Bishop claims that he started at a disadvantage, as “the other Dan” has been running for so much longer. But “everybody has plenty of money,” says North Carolina Republican strategist Larry Shaheen. “This is a turnout battle. Identify your voters, and get them to turn out.” 

In early voting, more Democrats have cast ballots than Republicans by several thousand. That’s typical: Democrats tend to vote early, and Republicans tend to turn out on Election Day. In the 9th District, almost as many independents as Republicans have cast early ballots. It’s anybody’s guess how those ballots will go, but strong early turnout by independents is unusual, especially for a special election. 

One early voter, an older woman named Sonia, wouldn’t reveal her choice for the 9th District or her last name, but did identify herself as conservative. Is she optimistic about the future?

“I have to be; things can’t get much worse,” she says, hefting a watermelon at the Union Market farm stand in Waxhaw, 12 miles from Charlotte. “Obama did his best to destroy us.” 

Ahead of Tuesday, the airwaves have been chock-full of inflammatory ads aimed at both candidates. Republicans have dubbed the Democrat “McGreedy,” claiming the solar energy entrepreneur cost consumers millions of dollars by backing regulations that helped his business and raising utility rates. The Raleigh News & Observer rated the charge “mostly false.” 

Prominent Democrats have not stumped for Mr. McCready, who has tried to keep the focus local. “Will Mr. Trump’s visit help or hurt your campaign?” Mr. McCready is asked by a reporter after the Friday rally. 

“I’m not a pundit, but people are tired of the partisan politics,” he says. “You turn on Twitter, and it looks like our country is impossibly divided, but most people aren’t there. People are ready for leaders who will bring this country together.” 

Mr. McCready predicts Tuesday’s vote will be “extremely close” – just as it was last November, when his opponent “won” by just 905 votes, before the results were invalidated. 

For now, North Carolina is still more red than purple, says Susan Roberts, a political scientist at Davidson College in Davidson, north of Charlotte. Mr. Bishop should win, she says, given the composition of the district. But if Mr. McCready ekes out a victory, “that will turn North Carolina into a battleground state.” 

Meeting division with dialogue

In Indian Trail, Scarlett Hollingsworth’s home doubles as the McCready campaign’s field office. It’s a beehive of activity, as canvassers varying in age and ethnicity come and go to get their marching orders. Two cats and a dog, plus the Hollingsworths themselves – Scarlett, her husband, and two of their children – are also in the mix. 

Ms. Hollingsworth, an IT specialist, is communications manager for the local chapter of the progressive group Indivisible, and she has taken the newcomer, Ms. Perry, under her wing to do door-knocking. 

Union County, where Indian Trail is located, voted heavily for Mr. Trump in 2016, but no matter. A Democratic vote is a Democratic vote, no matter where in the 9th District it’s cast. 

After two days of canvassing, Ms. Perry reflects on her experience. The first day, they targeted Democratic voters in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, and on Sunday, in a more lower-middle-class area. They had a target list of homes with registered Democrats, but Ms. Perry quickly discovered that some households are “mixed.” 

At one house, “the husband outside made clear he was not a Democrat and that we were not welcome,” she says. “We backed away. We’re not there to argue with people.” 

At another home, it seemed the mother was the only Democrat. But the canvassers talked to the whole family for an hour. “I don’t know if we persuaded them, but it was great that they were open to dialogue,” Ms. Perry says. “Even Scarlett said that never happens. There’s just so much divisiveness.” 

What did Ms. Perry get out of the experience? 

“It filled me with hope,” she says. “It helps to engage people. It helped me to know that we’re not alone, in a heavily red area, which Union County is. I would smile, introduce myself, remind them to vote, and hand them a leaflet. Usually we got big smiles. I felt empowered – and hopefully we empowered them.” 

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