North Carolina’s 9th District Democratic and Republican Congressional candidates face off in their first debate
Singer James Taylor, Donald Trump Jr., Lara Trump, Karen Pence the vice president’s wife, civil rights icon John Lewis, former Arkansas governor and TV commentator Mike Huckabee, Sen. Lindsey Graham — they’re all among the celebrities and politicians trying to sway voters choosing a new congressman in the crucial 9th District.
Oh, and President Donald Trump himself— twice.
The list of high-profile visitors hoping to swing the election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District keeps growing, and the all-out blitz of prominent campaigners, especially on the Republican side, is a measure of how fiercely fought the battle for the 9th District has become.
The district, which stretches from Charlotte through Union County and east to Fayetteville, is seen as one of the best chances for Democrats to pick up a congressional seat. Democrat Dan McCready, a Marine Corps veteran and businessman, has outraised his Republican opponent, former pastor Mark Harris. Incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger lost to Harris in the primary.
At stake: possible control of the U.S. House, which Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to retake.
“At the congressional level, I can’t think off the top of my head of similar big names” bombarding a North Carolina district so closely together, said Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer. “The question in my mind is, do all these notable personalities help drive people to the polls?”
Huckabee, whose daughter Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the White House press secretary, hopes so.
“Candidates win or lose elections, surrogates don’t,” he told the Observer on Wednesday. “What maybe can happen is we can bring attention to the race.”
National observers rate the 9th District race as a toss-up, and polls show it will likely be close. Republicans have held the seat for more than five decades.
On Friday, Trump will make his second visit to Charlotte for Harris. He’ll hold a “Make America Great Again” rally in Bojangles’ Coliseum, starting at 7 p.m. In August, he headlined a fundraiser for Harris and Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, who’s also in a tight race in the 13th District.
Voters’ interest in the midterms is high across North Carolina. With more than 840,000 ballots cast early through Thursday, Bitzer said early voting totals so far are closer to the 2016 presidential election than a typical midterm election, with no statewide offices on the ballot.
“That’s what’s been blowing me away,” Bitzer said.
According to N.C. Vote Tracker, a service compiled by the conservative-leaning Civitas Institute, more than 63,000 people have voted early so far in the 9th District. That’s almost one-fifth of the total votes cast in the district in 2016.
On Wednesday, Huckabee and Harris campaigned together from Richmond County to Matthews.
“Having somebody like Gov. Huckabee come in engages voters who haven’t been engaged,” said James Tatro, a Harris supporter who joined the two Republicans in Matthews.
Here’s who’s been campaigning in the 9th District:
▪ On the Republican side, the big names started coming through with Trump’s August fundraiser for Harris and Budd. Since then, daughter-in-law Lara Trump has led an early voting rally for Harris. Donald Trump Jr. and Freedom Caucus chair U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows held a Charlotte fundraiser. And Karen Pence, the vice president’s wife, held a Charlotte rally and a three-day bus tour through the district for Harris.
This week alone, in addition to Huckabee stumping with Harris on Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham headlined a Thursday fundraiser and Trump is coming to town for the Friday night rally.
▪ McCready canvassed with former Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick last weekend, and held a Charlotte event this month with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, considered a rising star for Democrats. Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a longtime civil rights leaders, held a “get out the vote” event with McCready in Fayetteville last week, while Taylor, the musician, is holding a private fundraiser for the candidate in Charlotte on Friday.
More big-name Republicans than Democrats have come through the 9th District.
That’s likely in part because Democrats don’t have a figure of national stature equivalent to Trump, the sitting president, to deploy. Former President Barack Obama has been mostly quiet this midterm cycle, though he held a rally in Las Vegas and is planning to visit Detroit on Friday to boost Democrats in local races.
The imbalance also could be because McCready is trying to cast himself as a centrist and emphasize his bipartisan appeal. Some nationally known Democrats could be a turn-off for moderate voters. Harris has tried repeatedly during debates and through advertising to link McCready to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, widely reviled on the right, though McCready has said repeatedly he won’t back her for Speaker of the House if he’s elected.
“That would, I think, not be a good fit for the district, and that’s the name of the game at this point,” said Bitzer.
McCready said in a statement that Trump is “welcome to visit Charlotte.”
“I hope during his visit, President Trump gets a sense for the pressing needs of our community and why I’m fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare, create good-paying jobs, and end the partisan bickering in Washington to get things done,” McCready said.
Before Trump’s Friday rally, McCready sent a fundraising appeal to supporters warning against “fear and falsehoods.”
“We can expect a whole new slate of lies told and insults hurled, all in order to divide people and give Harris an edge,” McCready’s campaign wrote.
The Trump factor
But by directly inserting himself into the 9th District race with multiple visits, Trump could make it more of a referendum on him than on either candidate or any local issues. It’s an open question which candidate that would help.
A poll of 500 likely voters in North Carolina by Civitas this week showed an even split for the president’s approval rating, with 46 percent of voters viewing Trump favorably and the same percentage viewing him unfavorably.
Besides prominent supporters, the race has also attracted big money. McCready has raised $4.3 million, far outstripping Harris’ $1.6 million total.
Outside groups have also spent more than $5 million more in the race, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org, making it the most expensive congressional race in the state. About $3.2 million of that has been spent for McCready by groups including the Pelosi-aligned House Majority PAC and the League of Conservation Voters. But the biggest single outside spender is the Congressional Leadership Fund, aligned with Republicans in Congress, which has spent almost $1.3 million for Harris.
Other districts and states have also seen plenty of prominent visitors, of course.
Democrats in South Carolina, home to one of the first presidential primaries, have had a parade of 2020 hopefuls, including former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders.
Some have stumped for candidates. Others have helped party fundraisers.
“I think it pumped up a lot of people, especially with the Democratic base in the state,” said state party spokeswoman Saloni Sharma.