At a retreat with top GOP donors in Wyoming last week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy broached a growing concern for senior Republicans: a crucial, do-over election for a North Carolina congressional seat.
McCarthy has traveled to the state to help the Republican candidate, state Sen. Dan Bishop, and has pushed his rank-and-file lawmakers to lend a hand. And as he chatted up contributors, he warned that next month’s vote is critical: Following a devastating 2018 election that demolished the House GOP majority, a win in the nationally-watched race would give the party a badly-needed morale boost.
The GOP appeared to have held the seat narrowly last November, but Republican Mark Harris’ apparent 905-vote victory over McCready was thrown out by the state board of elections, which found evidence that a Harris consultant had committed ballot fraud. That set up the new election in a state central to Trump’s reelection, a must-win Senate race and the host city for Trump’s convention next summer.
Republicans hope that Trump’s involvement in the district — which is filled with the type of white and older working-class voters that powered his 2016 win — will put Bishop over the top.
“This race is about Donald Trump,” said Jim Blaine, a senior adviser to Bishop’s campaign. “Dan’s embraced Trump 100 percent.”
The election is serving as a testing ground for Trump’s 2020 message and strategy. Bishop has worked to nationalize the race, labeling McCready a “socialist” and, more recently, pushing out immigration ads echoing Trump’s rhetoric against Latino immigrants, including a spot in which he criticizes the Mecklenburg County sheriff for not cooperating with federal immigration enforcement officials.
In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, Trump deployed similar attacks against Democrats, attempting to stoke fear of a migrant caravan approaching from Central America. Republicans ended up losing 40 seats in the House, with the North Carolina race left unresolved.
The Republican National Committee jumped into the district earlier this month, aiding Bishop’s campaign with get-out-the-vote strategies they plan to deploy in 2020 for Trump. The RNC has spent $1.5 million across the state to date, including spending for another special election on Sept. 10 in solidly Republican territory.
Collectively, the National Republican Campaign Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to McCarthy, have pumped roughly $4 million into the race. And the conservative Club for Growth has spent more than $500,000 backing Bishop.
The urgency partly reflects Democrats’ head-start in the contest, Republicans say. McCready, a solar company executive, has been running for the seat since 2017. Bishop won the nomination in May, winning a primary held without Harris, who declined to run again.
“Dan McCready started out way ahead in terms of money, organization, name identification and public sympathy because of the circumstances surrounding the 2018 election,” said Blaine. “If Dan Bishop overcomes those disadvantages and wins, it is a testament to the durability of the Trump coalition and the NRCC and RNC’s and ability to get a full-fledged general election effort stood up in three months.”
Yet it also underscores concern about early-vote totals, which show the GOP falling behind. Through Monday, 54 percent of early votes in the district had been cast by Democratic voters, compared to 41 percent by Republicans. At the same point before the 2018 election, Republicans had a 46 percent to 42 percent lead over Democrats.
Republicans repeatedly mentioned McCready’s head start in conversations with POLITICO, appearing to lower expectations should Bishop fail to catch up.
“This is going to be a very close election because of the two-year, multi-million-dollar head start Dan McGreedy has benefited from, and it is critical Republicans stay engaged to bring this race home,” said Chris Pack, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson, referencing a line of attack the House campaign arm has hammered in the district.
As Bishop’s campaign has worked to tag McCready with the socialist and liberal tags Republicans are applying nationwide, the NRCC has focused on McCready’s work in renewable energy, claiming the Democrat is a greedy businessman who backed a bill, they claim, cost consumers millions in higher energy costs.
A fact-check by the Charlotte Observer found that the ad misled voters about McCready’s history.
The pressure on Republicans to get Bishop over the finish line is “tremendous,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh. Winning in North Carolina’s 9th district, McIntosh said, will determine whether Republicans have any shot at recapturing the House.
“It’s a test to the effectiveness of Republicans to win back districts with heavy suburban populations,” said McIntosh.
And the president has a great deal at stake in the race, too, McIntosh said. North Carolina would “be good to nail down ahead of time for [Trump],” he said. “So spending time there now means it’s less likely to be a battleground later.”
Democrats are also investing in the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to spend roughly $2.8 million before the Sept. 10 election.
The DCCC touted its early, under-the-radar financing, according to a memo the committee distributed earlier this month — an intentional strategy that it utilized in a closely watched 2018 special election in Pennsylvania, which Democrats flipped despite Trump carrying the district by nearly 20 points in 2016. In North Carolina, the DCCC’s investments are specifically focused on turning out African Americans and the Lumbee community in the district.
But the DCCC also joined the airwaves in mid-August, a sign of the race’s competitiveness. The DCCC’s spot, like much of McCready’s advertising, hits Bishop for his votes on health care in the state Senate — an updated version of Democrats’ core message in the 2018 midterms.
McCready is also getting some outside help. The Democratic dark-money group House Majority Forward recently dropped more than $450,000 on an ad buy touting McCready’s military service. He’s also backed by more than $800,000 in spending from the Environmental Defense Action Fund.
McCready has tried to keep the race local, steering clear of attachments to national Democrats — though he’s received fundraising email assists from a number of presidential candidates.
“They’re going to have a hard time painting someone who built a business from scratch and helped create a whole new industry here as a socialist,” said McCready.
Unlike typical House candidates, McCready’s issued detailed policy papers, including one on health care — taking care to not be lumped in with a growing number in his party calling for Medicare for All.
“We really don’t need to … blow up the system and do some of these crazy things that are being talked about on the [presidential] debate stage,” said McCready. “All we need to do is fix Obamacare.”
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