9 Things I Think I Think After the North Carolina Redo Election

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 10, 2019 · 11:44 PM EDT

Nearly a year after the two parties fought to a draw in North Carolina’s 9th District, Republican Dan Bishop and Democrat Dan McCready ended with another close race. Bishop prevailed 51 percent to 49 percent, with absentee ballots remaining to be counted. 

A win is better than a loss (and the result affects the fight for the majority), but the overall lessons from the race should not be dramatically different whether a candidate finishes narrowly ahead or behind. And even if the results aren’t predictive, there are implications for the 2020 elections. 

Here are a few thoughts:

House Republicans weren’t likely to gain the majority before the redo election and aren’t likely after the redo election. Since McCready and Republican Mark Harris finished within 905 votes of each other last November, this redo election was an opportunity to see how much the political environment has shifted in the last 10 months. Now we have an answer: not much. That’s bad news for the Republicans considering they lost a net of 40 House seats last cycle and only gained Senate seats because of a favorable map.

This race mattered in the fight for the majority. There’s a temptation to dismiss special election results completely, but the outcome mattered in the Republican math to the majority next year. With Bishop’s victory, they need a net gain of 19 seats in 2020 to retake the House. Republicans haven’t gained more than 14 seats in a presidential election since 1980, and even then, it wasn’t enough for the party to gain control of the House. 

Republicans will use this race as a blueprint for 2020. While some of Bishop’s television ads gained national attention for featuring members of the “squad” and putting McCready’s head on a clown’s body, Republicans put more money behind a specific message targeting the Democrat’s business. They won’t shy away from using Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar et al to rally the GOP base in 2020, but they will also look for specific information to disqualify individual Democratic candidates.

President Donald Trump made this seat vulnerable (a). One of the biggest factors Republicans point to in explaining their narrow margin in a GOP-leaning district is McCready’s tremendous fundraising advantage over Harris in 2018 and over Bishop this year. But Trump is the reason why McCready was able to raise so much money. The president continues to energize and motivate Democratic donors and voters. 

President Donald Trump made this seat vulnerable (b). It’s practically common knowledge that Trump carried this district by more than 11 points. It might be easy to blame Bishop for underperforming, but I’m not convinced Trump could replicate his own margin. Ever since he won and became president, he has energized Democratic voters in a way that he didn’t as a candidate in 2016. If the circumstances were the same except with Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office, this race wouldn’t nearly be as competitive.

President Donald Trump made this seat vulnerable (c). North Carolina’s 9th has a remarkably consistent Republican trendline from John McCain’s 54 percent in 2008 to Mitt Romney’s 55 percent in 2012 and Trump’s 54 percent in 2016, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. So what’s changed? Once again, it’s President Donald Trump in the White House. That’s different from candidate Trump against Clinton. 

Of course, President Donald Trump will demand credit for victory. With an election eve rally and subsequent Bishop victory, of course, Trump is going to take credit. But with the previous points in mind, the president shouldn’t get credit for bringing a bucket to put out a fire he started. 

This is not a sustainable path to victory for the GOP. Republicans spent more than $6 million holding an open seat that the president carried by double digits. The party will not have the resources to replicate that across the 25 districts with suburban territory that they currently hold and that Trump carried in 2016 by narrower margins than North Carolina’s 9th (h/t to my colleague Leah Askarinam). Of course, some of those districts have incumbents who should be able to hold their own in fundraising. But others (including Texas’ 22nd and 24th districts) are open seats, which could drain resources before the GOP gets into offensive opportunities. And in those open-seat races, Republicans will face candidates similar to McCready who don’t have congressional voting records and are not as easily tied to Washington. 

Republicans shouldn’t rest too easy in victory. Republicans won nearly all of the competitive special elections in 2017 and 2018 (except for Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th District) before losing a net of 40 seats in the general election. While the special election results weren’t predictive, the margins told the story. The races were closer than the traditional GOP performance and pointed to future problems. We’ll see if that happens again in 2020.