In many respects, the special election in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District yesterday reflects the dynamics of American politics generally since Donald Trump took office. After aggressive intervention from his national party and Trump himself, Republican state legislator Dan Bishop won narrowly in a suburban/rural district that the GOP had held for 55 years and that Trump won by 12 points in 2016. But it’s being spun by the president and conservative media as a triumph for the ages and a sure sign of total victory everywhere in 2020.
Trump, of course, is taking all the credit for himself:
Trump is also trying to draw attention to a predictable (and much more robust) Republican win in the Third Congressional District in the eastern part of the Tar Heel State, where a special election was also held yesterday (longtime GOP incumbent Walter Jones died earlier this year). Though Trump won both districts by roughly equal margins in 2016, the Third District exemplifies the president’s rural/small-town base, while the Ninth takes in a lot of suburban territory, where he’s less popular and the GOP notably struggled in the midterms. That and the fact that the Ninth had a whisker-close 2018 race whose results were overturned by an infamous GOP election-fraud incident made this special election, well, special.
Democrat Dan McCready, who ran in the disputed 2018 election in the district, raised more money for his campaign than Bishop, but Bishop more than made up for that deficit in outside party and interest-group help. And even though McCready was relentlessly moderate (his slogan was “country over party,” he was treated to the kind of classic demonization tactics you can expect Republicans to use in 2020, following the Trump reelection campaign’s efforts to label the entire Democrat Party as a bunch of America-hating commies, as the Charlotte Observer noted:
Tuesday night in Fayetteville Trump told supporters they have a “chance to send a message to the America-hating Left.”
“The fact is the Democratic candidate aligns more with the SOCIALIST SQUAD than he does with the People of North Carolina,” Trump emailed Tuesday. “He’s been bought and paid for by Nancy Pelosi and he’ll only contribute to their corrupt agenda.”
What does Bishop’s win really mean? That’s hard to say, though the overinterpretations will be many. The Republican did do marginally better than 2018 candidate Mark Harris, though Harris lost some support because of his two primary challenges (the second one successful) to fellow-Republican incumbent Robert Pittenger. Harris didn’t run in the special election, citing health problems. But as the New York Times noted, McCready seems to have actually improved on his 2018 performance in the Charlotte suburbs, which is a flashing red light for Republicans nationally, given the suburban ground the party lost in the midterms. If you extrapolate the Ninth District results to North Carolina as a whole, Trump and the GOP are in trouble heading toward 2020. But single special-election events are often not predictive of anything, particularly in burned-over territory like North Carolina’s Ninth District, which has gone through multiple primary and general elections, and where the ultimate winner gained unsavory national fame as the author of the state’s ill-fated “bathroom bill.”
More than any other recent precedent, the outcome in North Carolina’s Ninth District is reminiscent of Republican Karen Handel’s narrow win in Georgia’s Sixth District in 2017, after an even more expensive and nationally renowned special-election campaign. It was hailed by Republicans everywhere as proof that the Trump-era Democratic surge shown in earlier (and later) special elections was an illusion. Yet Handel lost her hard-won seat in 2018 to Democrat Lucy McBath. So takes like this need to be consumed with a shaker of salt:
“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.
Democrats are being more restrained about the results, but they are not displeased, as the Washington Post reports:
[P]rivately, some Democrats weren’t expecting to win this race. They just wanted to get close and scare off Republicans from big challenges in 2020. They may get their wish. The Post’s Mike DeBonis reports that Republicans were concerned that a loss in North Carolina could lead to the retirement of more Republican lawmakers across the country, expanding the map even further for Democrats.
Trump’s intervention in the race and the tone of the anti-McCready campaign do confirm that 2020 will be total war, particularly in battleground states like North Carolina. But we already knew that.