Conservative Republican Dan Bishop won a special election for an open House seat in North Carolina, averting a demoralizing Democratic capture of a district the GOP has held for nearly six decades. But his narrow victory didn't erase questions about whether President Donald Trump and his party's congressional candidates face troubling headwinds approaching 2020.
Mr. Bishop, a state senator best known for a North Carolina law dictating which public bathrooms transgender people can use, defeated centrist Democrat Dan McCready on Tuesday. Mr. Bishop tied himself tightly to Mr. Trump, who staged an election eve rally for him in the district, and Tuesday's voting seemed no less than a referendum on the Republican president, who quickly took credit for the triumph.
"Dan Bishop was down 17 points 3 weeks ago. He then asked me for help, we changed his strategy together, and he ran a great race. Big Rally last night," Mr. Trump tweeted. No polling has emerged publicly that showed Mr. Bishop with a deficit of that magnitude. Operatives from both parties and analysts had long said the race was too close to call.
The results in the district underscored the rural-urban split between the parties, with Mr. Bishop running up substantial numbers in outlying areas and Mr. McCready eroding GOP advantages in suburban areas. Mr. McCready's moderate profile resembled that of many Democrats who won in Republican-leaning districts in the 2018 midterms and, even with the loss on Tuesday, showed the durability of that approach.
Mr. Bishop's margin – a little more than 2 percentage points – was far less than the 11 percentage points by which Mr. Trump captured the district in 2016. And it was only slightly greater than when then-GOP candidate Mark Harris seemed to win the seat over Mr. McCready last year – before those results were annulled after evidence of vote tampering surfaced and a new election was ordered.
Republicans have held the seat since 1963, and its loss would have been a worrisome preface to the party's presidential and congressional campaigns next year.
"I think it means Trump is going to get a second term, and Republicans will retake the majority," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in an interview with The Associated Press. Many analysts think a GOP takeover will be difficult.
Special elections generally attract such low turnout that their results aren't predictive of future general elections. Even so, the narrow margin in the GOP-tilted district suggested that Democrats' 2018 string of victories in suburban districts in red states including Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas could persist next year.
Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who runs House Democrats' political committee, said the close race showed her party is "pushing further into Republican strongholds" and was in a "commanding position" to do well next year.
Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in North Carolina, said the narrow margin suggests that the country's other closely divided swing districts "could be still up for grabs."
There is almost no pathway to Republicans regaining House control next year unless they avoid losing more suburban districts and win back some they lost last year.
The district stretches from Charlotte, one of the nation's financial nerve centers, through its flourishing eastern suburbs and into less prosperous rural counties along the South Carolina line. More than half its voters were expected to come from the suburbs.
Since Mr. Trump became president, voters in such communities – particularly women and college-educated voters – have abandoned him in droves over his conservative social policies and vitriolic rhetoric on immigration and race.
Suburban defections would also jeopardize the reelection prospects of Mr. Trump, who's already facing slipping poll numbers. Limiting the erosion of those voters will be crucial for him to retain swing states like North Carolina, which he won by less than 4 percentage points in 2016.
But Tuesday's vote showed that Mr. Bishop benefited from the district's conservative leanings.
"Bishop, his policies follow my convictions – after hearing Bishop, knowing that he's for the Second Amendment and he's against illegal immigration," said Susie Sisk, a retiree from Mint Hill. The registered Democrat said she voted for Mr. Bishop.
Along with a GOP victory in a second vacant House district in North Carolina, Republicans pared the Democratic majority in the House to 235-199, plus one independent. That means to win control of the chamber in 2020, Republicans will need to gain 19 seats, which a slew of GOP retirements and demographic changes around the country suggests will be difficult.
In the day's other special election, Republican Greg Murphy, a doctor and state legislator, defeated Democrat Allen Thomas – as expected – to keep a House district along North Carolina's Atlantic coast.
That seat has been vacant since February, when 13-term GOP Rep. Walter Jones died, and Mr. Trump won the district handily in 2016.
The bathroom law that Mr. Bishop sponsored was repealed after it prompted a national outcry and boycotts that the AP estimated cost North Carolina $3.7 billion.
Mr. Bishop bound himself tightly to Mr. Trump, backing his proposed border wall with Mexico and accusing Trump critics of being intent on "destroying him."
"The voters said no to radical, liberal polices pushed by today's Democratic Party," Mr. Bishop said in a victory speech.
Mr. McCready, a former Marine who started a firm that's financed solar energy projects to cast himself as a job creator and environmental champion. He also focused on containing health care costs and ran a spot featuring his trademark promise to prioritize "country over party."
In his concession speech, Mr. McCready referred to the ballot fraud investigation that led to Tuesday's special election.
"The people of North Carolina stood up and we faced down the full force of election fraud and voter suppression," he said. "When the people in power sought to silence the voices of the voters, stole their ballots, forged signatures from them, filled in vote choices for them, we fought back and we won."
At a rally Mr. Trump staged for Mr. Bishop in July, Mr. Trump said four Democratic women of color should "go back" to their home countries, though all but one was born in the U.S. The crowd began chanting "Send her back!"
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writers Emery P. Dalesio and Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.