Despite hope that the party would unify ahead of the upcoming special election in North Carolina's 9th District, Republicans enter this week’s candidate filing period with no clear front-runner in an unwieldy field.
The party's predicament is compounded by Democrats' ability to firmly coalesce behind their 2018 nominee, Dan McCready, a Marine veteran who has stockpiled cash for a new race since December.
That could all add up to give Democrats their 41st and final pickup from the midterms and, in turn, provide a decided edge in this expansive district come November 2020.
"It’s a disadvantage, certainly," said Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, who represents North Carolina's 11th District. "Any time you have anyone that has millions of dollars at their disposal running against a new candidate, it’s a disadvantage."
GOP strategists aren’t losing sleep over the recent decision not to run made by their party's nominee from 2018—Mark Harris, whose apparent 905-vote win was never certified and whose campaign operative was indicted on election-fraud charges. But while they avoid what could have been a fatally damaged candidate, Republicans' inability to entice a field-clearing contender to fill the void has led some to admit that they start the race as underdogs.
"There’s no doubt about it. They have a big step up in both money and a confirmed candidate," said former Gov. Pat McCrory, who was recruited to run but declined.
McCready is expected to face only nominal Democratic competition, at most. Yet if no candidate emerges from the May 14 GOP primary with at least 30 percent, Republicans may not have a nominee until a Sept. 10 runoff, which would delay the general election scheduled for that day until Nov. 5.
Members of President Trump's political team have held conversations about whether to weigh in on the primary, according to sources familiar with the discussions. And even acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who grew up in the Charlotte area, has taken an interest in the race. But those sources said they believe the White House won’t attempt to clear the field because of the lack of an obvious candidate to support.
Several of the biggest names are sitting out the race, including McCrory; former Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, whom Harris ousted in the primary; former Charlotte City Councilman Kenny Smith, who ran for mayor in 2017; and Daniel Barry, the well-connected former chairman of the Union County GOP.
Republican operatives said any involvement in closely watched special elections is high-risk, especially for a White House still scarred by the March 2018 contest in Pennsylvania's 18th District, when the GOP nominee floundered after being repeatedly embraced by the president.
"If they’re thinking about it, it’s not close to a decision," Meadows said in a brief interview last week, about whether the White House will intervene. "In fact, I’ve been told just the opposite, that they’re not going to weigh in."
Republicans in the state are encouraged by the partisan lean of the district, which includes the Charlotte suburbs and spans east toward rural counties. Voters there backed Mitt Romney in 2012, and Trump by 12 points in 2016.
"With the right Republican candidate, I think it’s very, very winnable," said Rep. David Rouzer, who represents a neighboring district.
Still, the lack of interest by top-tier candidates is reflective of the daunting task ahead. The GOP candidate would start well behind McCready in fundraising in what is likely to be an intensely nationalized race.
"There’s been a lot of money put behind McCready. Certainly his name ID is strong," Rouzer said. "He has the advantage of the incumbency in that respect."
If a runoff pushes the general election to Nov. 5, it would fall just a month before the filing deadline to run again in 2020. Meanwhile, uncertainty clouds the state's entire political scene. While maps in every state with multiple districts will be redrawn in 2021, the Supreme Court is hearing a partisan gerrymandering challenge to North Carolina’s current lines, which could impact this cycle.
Some Republicans in the state estimate that at least 10 GOP candidates could file this week. Among them: state Sen. Dan Bishop, who has hinted he will self-fund at least six-figures; Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing; and former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour.
A primary runoff could be very likely "because most of the candidates running are in second-tier positions without name ID," said McCrory, who said he was urged to run based on his high favorability among Republicans. "They’re coming from either the state legislature or local county offices."
Democrats sizing up the field note that some contenders carry baggage. Rushing, whom Harris endorsed, publicly accused a woman with whom he had an affair of harassing his daughter. He hails from Union County, which has a trove of GOP primary voters.
Ridenhour could appeal to swing voters by stressing his background in the Marines—but it's not clear how he would fare against primary opponents who may run to his right. Bishop’s role as an author of the state's controversial "bathroom bill" could turn out evangelical Christians and party activists, though it may also turn off independents.
"I think the challenge is what has the most potential to win in a primary could have the most potential to lose in a general," said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist with roots in North Carolina. "That’s a perfect example, and that could be a fundraising lightning rod for Democrats."
McCready had already raised more than $500,000 by the start of 2019, and the solar-energy entrepreneur has some ability to invest in his race. He raised more than $6 million throughout his 2018 run. Republicans in the district fear a primary runoff is increasingly likely and would give McCready additional months to prepare.
He ran last cycle as a business-minded Democrat and found strong traction with unaffiliated voters. A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poll of the district conducted in late February found him at 49 percent favorability among registered independents. Only 24 percent had an unfavorable opinion. The same survey found his district-wide name ID at 77 percent.
"This district is won or lost by the independent vote," said Aaron Simpson, McCready's spokesman. "And Dan’s numbers with independents are exceptional."
Democrats say part of his strength is in his message discipline, and that he will be able to resist over-nationalization of the race even as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up. In his last bid, he stressed local issues, such as hurricane-relief funding and combating water pollution by release of the GenX chemical compound.
Yet national Republicans expect the House Democratic majority, which is now a reality, will finally force McCready to offer opinions on liberal policy proposals that have dominated the conversation in the Capitol. The Charlotte Observer endorsed McCready last year, but notably pointed out that he fails to give "direct answers to tough questions."
"He’s attached to a Democratic Party that’s moving further to the left, and it’s really undeniable at this point," said Patrick Sebastian, a Republican consultant in the state. "He’s going to have to actually maybe take a stance on something for once, like Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal."