Jonathan Martin and Richard Fausset
Voters in a Republican-leaning North Carolina congressional district went to the polls on Tuesday to choose a new representative in a special election that will test President Donald Trump’s clout ahead of 2020 and Democrats’ ability to make inroads with the sort of suburban voters who propelled them to a majority in the House last year.
Most polls closed at 7:30 p.m. in a race pitting Dan McCready, a Democrat and Marine veteran whose motto is “country over party,” against Dan Bishop, a Republican state senator who has been endorsed by Trump and who has welcomed the president’s characterization of McCready as an “ultra liberal” who “really admires socialism.”
Putting his political capital on the line, Trump campaigned with Bishop on Monday evening in Fayetteville, in the conservative eastern edge of the district, just hours before polls opened. Vice President Mike Pence also lent a hand Monday, holding a rally in Wingate, North Carolina, on Bishop’s behalf.
In a separate special election Tuesday in North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, the Republican candidate, Greg Murphy, cruised to an easy victory as expected.
The real battle was in the 9th District, which covers part of Charlotte and a number of exurban and rural counties to the east. It has not been represented by a Democrat since the early 1960s, and Trump won it by nearly 12 percentage points in 2016. But in the midterms of 2018, McCready, surfing the national anti-Trump mood, ran a close race, losing by 905 votes to the Republican candidate at the time, Mark Harris.
Then came one of the more bizarre plot twists in recent American politics: The state elections board threw out the entire election and ordered a new one after evidence surfaced that Harris’ campaign had funded an illegal vote-harvesting scheme in rural Bladen County.
McCready, 36, a businessman, decided to keep running, and has now been on the campaign trail for 27 straight months. A centrist, he has been focusing on the issue of health care affordability and criticizing Bishop for opposing the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Bishop, 55, a Charlotte lawyer, is perhaps best known statewide for sponsoring the so-called bathroom bill that required transgender people to use restrooms that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificate. He boasts of his endorsement from the National Rifle Association, and he has repeatedly attacked McCready by lumping him with the more left-leaning elements of the Democratic Party.
Trump has tweeted his endorsement for Bishop and sent out a fundraising email on his behalf. In July, Bishop spoke at Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina, in which the crowd responded to the president’s attacks on Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., with chants of “send her back!”
The election is effectively the last campaign of the 2018 season, and what alarms national Republicans is how ominously it recalls the midterm elections: As with so many races last year, a centrist Democrat has raised significantly more money than the Republican candidate. And it’s happened in a historically conservative district that is now tilting toward the political center because of the suburban drift away from the GOP.
Just as in so many of the special elections leading up to Democratic victories, or near-wins, since 2017, local Republicans have beckoned Trump and Pence to compensate for the disparity in enthusiasm between the two candidates.
But as officials in both parties recognize, the president is not just a turnout lever for Republicans — he also inspires Democrats and some left-leaning independents.
At Olde Providence Elementary School in Charlotte on Tuesday afternoon, voters moved in and out of their polling place at a steady trickle, braving 93-degree heat and a gauntlet of volunteers for local campaigns who lined the sidewalk outside.
The elementary school is surrounded by a relatively prosperous clutch of neighborhoods in South Charlotte — exactly the kind of place where McCready needs to rack up votes if he is to score an upset.
Lisa Rockholt, 58, a registered nurse, said she voted for McCready. She said she typically votes for both Republicans and Democrats, but was fed up with all the available options in the last presidential election, and wrote in her boyfriend’s name.
Rockholt said she disagreed with Bishop’s opposition to the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in this state. As an RN, she said, she has seen the toll that a lack of insurance can take on North Carolinians. And she liked McCready’s talk about keeping down the price of prescription drugs.
Stephanie Dillon exited the polling place with her 7-week-old son, Wells, in a stroller. She considers herself a political independent and she recalled voting for Mitt Romney in a previous presidential election.
Dillon, 34, might represent a kind of nightmare-scenario voter for Bishop and Trump. Her conservatism is of the fiscal and business-friendly variety. She works in human resources, though she is on maternity leave now, and has seen the pressures that businesses must overcome to survive. But this time around, she voted for McCready.
She is not an immigration hard-liner (Bishop has referred to himself as “pro-wall”) and she has very few kind things to say about Trump. “The whole kind of sexist persona totally turns me off,” she said, adding, “Why is he spending his time tweeting to celebrities?”
Caroline Penland, 44, a Republican, said she voted for Bishop. She is a reliable Republican voter, and a Christian who opposes abortion and favors “keeping God in schools.” She also favors some gun control, after being deeply affected by a 2012 shooting that occurred at the high school from which she graduated.
But now, she said, was not a time to stray from the Republican fold. She voted for Trump and would do so again. “From an economical standpoint he’s doing really well,” she said.
“First of all, he’s in my party. And I’m going to stick to my party right now,” Penland said of Bishop.
Penland, who works in marketing, also said that Bishop’s incessant ads targeting McCready stuck with her. She said her children were even referring to McCready as “McGreedy,” the epithet used against him in some attack ads.