The 2018 midterms will finally end next month. North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District will hold a special election on September 10 for a seat that should have been decided in November 2018. Those election results were thrown out by the state’s election board due to allegations of election fraud against McCrae Dowless, a member of Republican candidate Mark Harris’s campaign staff. He was charged with improperly collecting absentee ballots, forging signatures on absentee ballots and changing or filling in votes.
The District is traditionally Republican — No Democrat has won there since 1962 and Trump carried it by 12%. It runs from southeast Charlotte eastward through more rural and majority black counties. Union County, which includes the exurbs of Charlotte, was Harris’s stronghold. He won by 20% (over 17,000 votes) in Union County which allowed him to lose both Mecklenburg County (home to Charlotte) as well as the more rural and less populated Districts to the east and still win the election.
In the (invalidated) 2018 election, Republican Mark Harris beat his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by just 905 votes. Such a close election was bound to set off a competitive rematch. And so it has: Cook Political Report and Inside Elections have the race rated a “Toss Up” and Sabato’s Crystal Ball has it as “Leans Republican”.
Dan McCready, a marine veteran and renewable energy businessman, is again the Democratic nominee. He ran unopposed in the primary and is running as a moderate — disavowing some of the party’s more progressive figures and vowing not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker in the 2018 race. On the Republican side is Dan Bishop, a state senator most famous for sponsoring the controversial “bathroom bill” to require transgender people to use public bathrooms that align with the sex indicated on their birth certificates. Also on the ballot: Libertarian candidate Jeff Scott and Green Party candidate Allen Smith.
Polling has been scarce and hasn’t told us much about who is leading. The only external poll in the race found Bishop with a 46% to 42% lead over McCready. This poll, though, was taken back in May and found 10% of voters were undecided and had a 5.2% margin of error. The only other poll is from McCready’s camp and had the two candidates tied at 46% with 8% of voters and a 4.6% margin of error. These two polls don’t give us much indication of a favorite. They both show a tight race and have margins of error and enough undecided voters that the race could go either way.
The current polling doesn’t tell us much about who is winning. So, what other indicators do we have?
Good Signs for Democrat Dan McCready:
- McCready had no primary opponent. Primaries can cause intraparty schisms and drain candidates’ bank accounts, hurting them in the general election. McCready was able to glide through the primary season while his opponent, Dan Bishop, was battling it out with fellow Republicans.
- McCready has been campaigning for nearly 28 consecutive months. He announced his 2018 campaign in May of 2017. His opponent, on the other hand, has been running for 5. McCready has had ample time to get his name recognition up, meet voters and spread his message.
- McCready has dominated Bishop in fundraising. As of July 30, McCready had outraised his opponent $3.4 million to $1.2 million. McCready also had $1.8 million left in the bank compared to Bishop’s $340 thousand. As I wrote in a previous post, candidate fundraising in the general election usually doesn’t actually change the race that much. But it will allow McCready to stay on the air through election day, which could tip the scales in a very tight race. More importantly, though, it is an indicator of grassroots support and heightened enthusiasm.
- The district has an urban(ish) core and lots of black voters. The district did vote for Trump by 12 points in 2018, but is the archetypal district that is swinging towards Democrats. It comprises a good portion of southeast Charlotte and its suburbs, meaning there are likely plenty of suburban voters — the kind we saw swing towards Democrats in 2018, handing them the House. And while the district stretches eastward into rural counties, these counties have high proportions of black voters, a core Democratic constituency.
- Lastly (and in my opinion an underrated factor) is that Democrats did not commit election fraud. The Republican in 2018 received national bad press for tainting the election process, something Americans on both sides of the aisle view as sacrosanct. It’s not hard to imagine this recent Republican betrayal driving Democrats to turn out and Republicans to stay home.
Good Signs for Republican Dan Bishop:
- This is historically a Republican leaning District. Both Trump and Romney carried it by 12 points. No Democrat has won the seat since 1962. A 12 point swing in three years is a huge jump and a lot of things would have to go wrong for Bishop and right for McCready for it to happen.
- 2018 was a banner year for Democrats. They won the House popular vote by 8.6% and netted 41 House seats. But that may have passed. And if the national mood of the country is not as friendly for Democrats, it will be tough for them to win in a district that Trump carried by 12%. According to FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 poll aggregator, Democrats are currently leading in the generic ballot by about 6%. Special elections, though, are hard to predict and don’t always align with the national environment. But the possibility of a less Democratic national mood is a good sign for Bishop.
- Outside spending is heavily weighted in Bishop’s favor. While McCready has dominated in direct campaign contributions, Bishop has the weight of the NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund behind him. The two groups have reserved around $3.8 million in ad spots through election day. The DCCC pledged to spend $2 million on the race. The $1.8 million gap effectively neutralizes McCready’s advantage in campaign fundraising and may even be more effective because outside groups are often more amenable to drafting negative ads.
- This is an off-year election and off year elections have lower turnout. Generally, low turnout elections benefit Republicans because their base of older white voters are more likely to turn out than younger minority voters who lead Democratic.
- Dan Bishop avoided a runoff in the Republican primary, allowing the general election to happen in September rather than in November. Charlotte’s municipal elections take place in November and will likely turn out Democratic voters in the city. Bishop will benefit from the lack of overlap between the municipal and congressional elections.
The winner of this seat is not going to affect the current House power balance. Democrats hold 235 seats and Republicans effectively hold 1991There is a vacancy in NC-03 due to the death of Representative Walter Jones, but this is a heavily Republican district and expected to elect a Republican in the September special election. After this election the House balance will be either 236-199 or 235-200 — an insignificant difference. More importantly, the winner will have the incumbency advantage in 2020 and a good chance of holding onto the seat. Depending on how close the House race is next year, one extra seat could be meaningful.
And perhaps even more importantly, the results will tell us a few things about the current national environment. If McCready wins the election — or even if he loses but the race is much tighter than Trump’s 12-point margin — Democrats can breathe a bit easier. This would mean that the blue wave of 2018 has not completely receded and may stay through 2020. On the other hand, if Republicans again carry the seat by close to 12 points, they may have a better shot at winning back the House than the generic ballot indicates.
Lastly, the election is a testing ground for the parties’ 2020 messaging. Dan Bishop has been attacking Democrats as socialists, focusing his jabs against progressives like Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Bernie Sanders. McCready has run as a moderate — distancing himself from those same progressive figures and party leaders like Nancy Pelosi. His campaign slogan is “country over party”.
We are one month from election day and the race is up in the air. The polls show a tight race and no other indicators show a clear frontrunner. So, without any clear indicators, I’m moving from clear, hard data to opaque, soft guesswork. The previous Republican’s dabbling with election fraud caused this special election and left the district without congressional representation for nine months. This betrayal of America’s most fundamental institution — free and fair elections — leaves voters with a bad taste.
The election is still up in the air, but election fraud is, understandably, not popular. This could cause Republicans to stay home and drive Democrats to the ballot box. Election fraud is not a good look for Republicans and could give McCready the win in this traditionally Republican district.