The Ninth District race was, as I reported last week, both an encore to 2018 and a curtain-raiser for 2020. McCready, a marine and solar-energy entrepreneur, ran as a moderate problem-solver with a local focus, emphasizing reducing out-of-pocket health-care costs and improving public schools. This was a message that worked for many Democrats in similar districts in 2018, but McCready had the misfortune of running in a new political moment. Bishop, the guiding force behind North Carolina’s controversial 2016 “bathroom bill,” sought to nationalize the race by tying himself to Donald Trump. Bishop wagered that anger toward the president wouldn’t be as potent a force as it was 10 months ago, and that he could hurt McCready by tying him to leftist Democrats in the House and in the presidential race.
Spending in the race was high—about $20 million, with national parties and organizations shelling out on behalf of both candidates. President Trump held a rally Monday night in Fayetteville to boost Bishop, and tweeted repeatedly about the race. Both parties expected a close race, with turnout likely to be low for a special election at an unusual time. McCready placed his hope in a massive field operation, with 24 full-time organizers on his staff.
Once again, McCready was able to win over the inner suburbs around Charlotte, but Bishop improved on Harris’s performance in the district’s six eastern, more rural counties by enough to edge the Democratic vote. The final margin of victory is likely to be close to 2 percent, well below President Trump’s double-digit advantage in 2016, but ahead of the 2018 results.
What changed? On the Republican side, Bishop was simply a better candidate than Harris, who won the nomination after upsetting the incumbent, Representative Robert Pittenger. Bishop was more seasoned and better connected to the national party, especially to Trump.
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McCready’s struggles may be more revealing for those looking for portents of 2020. He was not the most electrifying candidate, striving for what one aide labeled an “aggressively normal” affect. Democrats nationally, and especially in North Carolina, have gravitated to straitlaced, moderate candidates such as McCready, hoping they can win over independents and voters who have traditionally leaned Republican but are appalled by Trump. McCready was able to raise money effectively, and he was able to generate a great deal of excitement in places like Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte—just the sort of suburban, moderate district that many Democrats won in 2018.
McCready actually improved his margin of victory in Mecklenburg in 2019. He even improved his margin slightly in Union County, a Republican stronghold of outer Charlotte suburbs. But in the more rural counties to the east, he struggled. Bishop flipped Richmond and Cumberland Counties, and nearly won Robeson County, a traditional Democratic base.