A true centrist or too vague? NC congressional candidate plays it down the middle

A blue wave could sweep Democrats back into power in the U.S. House this fall, but Dan McCready is following a path that looks a lot more purple.

McCready, a Democrat, is trying to flip North Carolina’s 9th District from Republican control in one of the nation’s most-watched races, a contest that could help determine control of the House. He’s running on a centrist platform that emphasizes his service as a Marine in Iraq and his small-business bona fides as a solar energy investor.

But his opponents charge that in trying to appeal to a broad swath of voters, McCready has touted slogans such as “country over party” instead of telling voters details about what he’d do on issues like immigration and the border, gun control, taxes and healthcare.

Political scientist Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College, said McCready is trying to “fit the district” — though a court ruling this week mandating new districts could throw that calculus into disarray, if the 9th is redrawn before the election.

“There’s a history of Southern, conservative or moderate Democrats, just as there was a history of liberal Republicans in the Northeast,” said Bitzer. “I think what McCready is trying to do is show there’s still room in the Democratic party. ... There’s still a sense of a middle that hasn’t been necessarily reflected, in both political parties.”

But opponents say McCready is being disingenuous.

“He doesn’t have a track record,” said Andy Yates, a political strategist working for the Mark Harris campaign. “He gives you no sense of where he stands.”

Ninth Congressional district candidate Dan McCready responds to a question during at a forum last spring. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

It’s McCready’s first run for public office, and the 35-year-old doesn’t have a lengthy history in public life for supporters to tout and opponents to dissect.

Harris, on the other hand, has three decades as a prominent Southern Baptist preacher who has run for the U.S. Senate and twice for Congress. He’s drawn criticism for previous sermons such as a 2013 message in which he questioned whether a career was the “healthiest pursuit” for women.

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McCready dismissed the suggestion that he hasn’t been clear on where he stands.

“I’ve focused on speaking out for good jobs throughout this 9th District, lowering healthcare costs, protecting Social Security and Medicare,” he said. “My message from the first day of this campaign has been country over party.”

In an ever-more-partisan political climate, McCready hasn’t embraced the Democratic party’s emergent left wing, which has produced a wave of candidates who support stances sucha as abolishing the country’s immigration enforcement police and banning assault weapons.

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McCready’s campaign has instead emphasized his military service and hasn’t shied away from his Christian beliefs. His first campaign ad featured footage of him in uniform holding a rifle, being baptized while serving in Iraq — with water from the Euphrates River —and leaving church with his family.

Party contrasts

On most issues, McCready walks a centrist line.

McCready says he supports “common-sense” gun reforms, such as comprehensive background checks and closing any loopholes that allow buyers to bypass them. But he’s also quick to note his experience with guns.

“I carried an M-16 for four years. I’m a gun owner now, a supporter of the Second Amendment,” he said. “I certainly understand the responsibility that comes with handling firearms and the safety that goes along with it.”

McCready doesn’t like talking about the possibility of impeaching President Donald Trump if Democrats retake the House — “I don’t deal in hypotheticals” — but supports allowing special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement shouldn’t be abolished, McCready said, and immigration reform “should include securing our borders to stop illegal immigration.” But he doesn’t support Trump’s plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border (technology such as motion sensors should be used instead, he says), and does support protecting children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents — the so-called “Dreamers” — from deportation.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, said McCready’s positions on the campaign trail will be overpowered by more liberal voices in his party if he wins.

“There’s no room in his party. They will govern as liberals,” Woodhouse said. “If you’re going to have someone who sounds like a Republican, just vote for the Republican.”

Yates echoed his criticism, saying the Democratic party has “gone far left, significantly to the left of the average voter in the 9th District.”

McCready’s centrist positions are a stark contrast with more liberal candidates who have emerged as rising stars in other parts of the country, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The 28-year-old “democratic socialist” defeated a 10-term incumbent in the Democratic primary for a district covering parts of Queens and the Bronx in New York. Ocasio-Cortez calls for abolishing ICE, universal healthcare, an assault weapons ban and a federal jobs guarantee.

Such positions have become rallying cries for candidates from the Democratic party’s emergent left wing. McCready supporters instead compare his campaign to candidates like Conor Lamb. Also a Marine and a moderate Democrat, Lamb won a special election in Pennsylvania this year to replace Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned.

“I think people made the same criticisms of Conor Lamb,” said state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg Democrat who has endorsed McCready. “Dan McCready is North Carolina’s Conor Lamb.”

After the special election, U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said Lamb won because he ran as a conservative who opposed minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

Donald Bryson, president of the Raleigh-based, conservative Civitas Institute, said McCready’s positions have been crafted to lure a range of voters.

“It’s all very appealing. Nobody’s against ‘sensible reform.’ Wow, who’s not in favor of lowering taxes and simplifying the tax code?” said Bryson.

“That’s a good drumbeat that any Republican could run on,” said Bryson. “He’s threading a very impressive needle to appeal to this district.”

A purple district?

Political observers say McCready’s middle-of-the-road strategy is prudent in the 9th District, which runs from southeast Charlotte through conservative suburbs in Union County, out to rural areas southeast of Fayetteville and Lumberton. The district seat has been held by Republicans for six decades.

In 2016, incumbent Robert Pittenger beat Democratic challenger Christian Cano handily, 58 percent to 42 percent.

However, a court ruling this week could throw the electoral map into chaos. A three-judge panel ruled that North Carolina’s congressional districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to give Republicans a lock on a 10-3 majority, and said the districts have to be redrawn before November.

While the ruling is certain to be appealed, it raises the possibility that there could be new primary elections, districts with new demographics, or even a delay in the general election until January.

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But for now, McCready’s running in the district as it stands.

And despite the district’s conservative leaning, the McCready-Harris race has shaped up as one of the most-watched and most competitive in the nation. A Civitas poll earlier this year showed McCready ahead of Harris by seven points, and in the May primary, McCready racked up more votes than the three Republican candidates combined, 38,098 to 35,643.

National pundits have rated the McCready-Harris race as too close to call, with the Cook Political Report labeling it a toss-up and analyst Nate Silver giving the candidates 50-50 odds.

McCready has been rolling out endorsements from a wide range of people to up his bipartisan appeal, from “Business Leaders for Dan,” led by former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, to “Republicans for Dan,” with former N.C. Supreme Court associate justice Bob Orr.

“Even if it means crossing the aisle in November, Dan McCready is the right choice for the 9th District,” said Orr, who said he’s been a Republican for more than 40 years.

McCready has more cash on hand — $1.8 million at the end of June, vs. just under $296,000 for Mark Harris, federal campaign finance data shows.

The race has also attracted plenty of outside money. The House Majority PAC, affiliated with Pelosi, is spending $227,600 against Harris. McCready has said he won’t support Pelosi as Speaker of the House, but the campaign cash has led the Harris campaign to charge that McCready would have to back her if he went to Congress.

The conservative group Heritage Action for America has also pledged to spend at least $200,000 for Harris in the race, and potentially up to $400,000 or more.

Dan McCready at a campaign event. Observer archives

“He’s trying to play to the district rather than be a national model of how Democrats are competing in other districts,” said Bitzer.

So far, McCready’s centrist path doesn’t appear to be hurting him with Democratic party activists.

Ray McKinnon, a Charlotte pastor and member of the DNC, said he’s not bothered by McCready’s positions.

“I’m definitely on the left flank of our party, and I fully support Dan,” said McKinnon. “If you had someone, frankly, like me running to represent the 9th District, I wouldn’t stand a chance, because I wouldn’t appeal to the voters there. ... If we have a chance of winning, we need someone like Dan.”

He dismissed any criticism of McCready as being disingenuous, and said it’s actually Harris who is far to the right of 9th District voters.

“They’re trying to pretend that Dan is far left or he’s somehow fake, and he’s not,” said McKinnon, who said McCready has made an effort to reach out to him and other farther-left party members in the Democrat’s base to garner their support. “Moderates do exist.”

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