Elections

North Carolina’s Special Election Doesn’t Tell Us Much about 2020

Republican candidate Dan Bishop speaks to the media outside a polling station in Indian Trail, N.C., September 10, 2019. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
Not much that we didn’t already know.

On Tuesday, Republican Dan Bishop defeated Democrat Dan McCready in a special election in North Carolina’s ninth congressional district by two percentage points. Donald Trump carried the district by twelve percentage points in 2016, so some analysts are pointing to the results as a big warning sign for the GOP in 2020.

There are good reasons to think the Republicans may indeed be in big trouble in 2020: President Trump’s disapproval rating has been historically high even with a strong economy; he polls poorly in head-to-head match-ups against Democratic front-runner Joe Biden; and Republicans were shellacked in 2018 in the three midwestern states that decided the 2016 presidential race and in suburbs across the country.

But I’m not sure the results in North Carolina’s ninth congressional district tell us much, because the special election was precipitated by election fraud that was committed to help the 2018 Republican candidate in the district, Mark Harris.

A number of smart analysts contend that the election-fraud scandal wasn’t much of a factor in the race. This week at FiveThirtyEight, Nathaniel Rakitch wrote:

Last year’s election fraud has played only a small role in this year’s campaign; according to Roll Call, it has surfaced mostly in the smaller, eastern part of the district where the irregularities took place. And instead, McCready has focused on health care — the same issue that helped Democrats flip the House in 2018 — attacking Bishop for voting against a bill to inform patients about low-cost prescription drugs and opposing Medicaid expansion. Meanwhile, Bishop and his allies have hammered McCready for his ties to an organization that lobbied against lower renewable-energy standards, which they claim benefited McCready’s business at the cost of higher utility bills for the general public.

McCready, the Democrat, did talk about the “stolen” election, even if it was not the primary focus of his campaign messaging. But it still stands to reason that the Republican scandal that was the very reason for the election in the first place could have hurt the Republican candidate.

Recall, for example, the special election that was held in New York City in September 2011 to fill the seat of disgraced Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned after it became known that he was fond of sending lewd photos of himself to women on the Internet. The debate between Democrat David Weprin and Republican Bob Turner focused on issues such as Israel and Medicare, but the Weiner scandal that caused the election obviously loomed large and undoubtedly helped the Republican win the race.

Weiner won his congressional election in 2010 by 26 points, but the Democrat trying to fill his seat lost it by six points in 2011. That election did not foreshadow Democratic doom in 2012: Barack Obama went on to defeat Mitt Romney that year, 51 percent to 47 percent.

The results in North Carolina’s ninth congressional district did show that Republicans continue to struggle in the suburbs. But it’s also worth keeping in mind the results in the other special congressional election held in North Carolina on Tuesday.

In the third congressional district, which includes the Outer Banks, a special election was held because incumbent Republican Walter Jones died earlier this year. Trump carried North Carolina’s third congressional district with 60.6 percent of the vote in 2016; on Tuesday, the Republican candidate carried the third district with 61.7 percent of the vote.

North Carolina is a key state in 2020, both in the presidential race and in the battle for control of the U.S. Senate, but Tuesday’s special elections, taken together, don’t tell us what’s going to happen 14 months from now.

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