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In North Carolina, Democrats Dodge the Culture Wars

A Democratic upset on Trump’s turf would be a setback for Republican attempts to paint all Democrats as socialists—and an ominous sign for GOP prospects in 2020.

North Carolina state Sen. Dan Bishop, the Republican candidate for the 9th District House seat, beside a cutout of Democratic challenger Dan McCready outside McCready's campaign headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. on May 15
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Aug. 13, 2019, 8 p.m.

Next month’s politically pivotal congressional election in North Carolina’s 9th District takes place at a particularly tumultuous time in American politics.

In response to race-baiting barbs from the White House, leading Democratic presidential candidates have taken to calling President Trump a white supremacist. Democratic lawmakers are demanding wide-ranging gun regulations in the wake of two mass shootings. The administration is cracking down on legal immigration, by making it harder for new immigrants who rely on public assistance to gain permanent residency, and illegal immigration, by arresting hundreds of undocumented workers at a Mississippi food processing plant.

But Democrats aren’t invoking these cultural touchstones in a race that will set the political stage for the 2020 elections. The Democratic nominee, Iraq War veteran Dan McCready, avoids addressing those polarizing issues of immigration, guns, and racism that dominate cable news chatter. And even though he’s running against state Sen. Dan Bishop, the sponsor of controversial legislation requiring people to use bathrooms corresponding to their sex at birth, McCready rarely brings up the issue.

Indeed, McCready relentlessly downplays his partisan bona fides. His campaign slogan is “country over party.” He’s been campaigning on his seven-point health care agenda, which calls for incremental changes such as Medicaid expansion, lower prescription-drug costs, and expanding access to primary care. One of his campaign ads attacks Bishop for taking a lonely vote against legislation that permits pharmacists to discuss with consumers lower-cost alternatives to prescription drugs. He is against government-run health care, and avoids any talk about wide-ranging health care reforms, like the proposals being debated on the presidential stage.

Democrats won back the House last year—prevailing in dozens of districts that Trump carried — by focusing on protecting health care benefits, and sidestepping the culture wars that are driving the American conversation. This election will be a test of whether that successful formula can replicate itself at a time at which the Democratic party has been racing to the left.

The off-year election was necessary due to documented fraud from local Republican operatives in last year’s contest. McCready lost the race by just 905 votes, but state election officials declared the results invalid because of numerous abnormalities.

The Sept. 10 special election is a lot more consequential for Republicans. If they can’t hang onto a gerrymandered district that Trump carried by 12 points, it would send a major warning that the political environment remains punishing for the party. It would raise doubts about their strategy of connecting every Democrat on every ballot with the most-radical voices within their party. And it would be a very costly defeat, given that outside Republican groups have spent or reserved nearly $4 million in the district on Bishop’s behalf.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee isn’t spending big money advertising on the race, arguing that a major investment from the national party would undermine McCready’s message of independence in a conservative-minded district. McCready’s significant fundraising advantage over Bishop—he raised $3.37 million this year, compared to Bishop’s $1.17 million—has allowed national Democratic groups to stay on the sidelines (for now), and focus on under-the-radar tasks like turning out their voters and conducting polls.

Unlike McCready, Bishop and his GOP allies have aggressively played up the culture wars. In one early campaign ad, Bishop stands next to a cardboard cutout of his opponent and says: “I’m the conservative Dan: pro-life, pro-gun, pro-wall.” A more recent spot portrays McCready alongside progressive Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all Photoshopped in clown costumes. “They hate President Trump more than they love America,” the narrator says.

Trump headlined a rally for Bishop in July, where the president painted McCready as a socialist despite the Democrat’s moderate messaging during the race. Outside Republican groups have taken a different line of attack against McCready, accusing his green energy business of profiting from higher energy prices in the state.

Both sides expect the election to be competitive; an internal poll commissioned in mid-July by the Bishop campaign showed the race tied at 46 percent. The Cook Political Report rates the race as a Toss-Up, while the University of Virginia's Sabato's Crystal Ball recently declared Bishop a slight favorite.

House Republicans have been hampered by a wave of retirements in recent weeks. Several of the departures have come from Southern suburban lawmakers worried about their reelection chances with Trump at the top of the ticket. If Bishop can’t hang on in this conservative slice of the South, Republican alarm bells will be ringing well beyond North Carolina heading into 2020.

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