On Tuesday a relative handful of North Carolina primary voters will set the stage for an election that could become a national preview of next year’s fight for Congress.
Ten Republicans are running in the 9th District for the chance to face Democrat Dan McCready in this year’s highest profile special election. The contest already has evoked the specter of socialism, infanticide and even a thwarted “coup” against the president.
“National Republicans see this as a test case for their message going into 2020,” said Jessica Taylor, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. “And Republicans want it to be a referendum on the Democratic Party.”
If nobody gets more than 30 percent on Tuesday, a runoff would be held Sept. 10 and a general election on Nov. 5. If there’s no runoff, the general election would take place on Sept. 10.
State officials called for the new election after allegations of absentee ballot fraud marred the 2018 vote. Five people have been arrested on charges related to the case.
Though they’ve sparred with each other, the 9th District Republicans have found their most consistent foils in liberal Democrats and their policies.
State Sen. Dan Bishop illustrated that in an ad that featured him standing next to rocking, inflatable clowns with the faces of Democrats such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“These crazy liberal clowns,” Bishop says in the ad. “The things they say. The way they act. What they believe. They’re not funny. They’re downright scary.”
He also has suggested that efforts to investigate President Donald Trump amounted to a coup. Other candidates have sounded similar notes.
“The US will never be a socialist country!,” Stevie Rivenbark of Fayetteville wrote on Facebook.
Leigh Brown, a Cabarrus County Realtor, told a WBT forum that if elected she’d work to ensure that “Medicare-for-all can die.”
And Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing said he’d appeal to voters who “can’t stomach babies on the (abortion) table dying.”
“The battle is how far to the right can you go?” said political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College. “Because conservatism is the new norm within the (Republican) party. So they have to prove their conservative credentials.”
Primaries tend to attract a party’s most passionate and ideological voters. According to Bitzer, early voters have been overwhelmingly white with a mean age of 65. Eight out of 10 are over 55.
Turnout has been low. In last month’s special primary in North Carolina’s 3rd District, it was less than 15 percent.
Hitting 30 percent
Even with 10 names on the ballot, Tuesday’s vote could well determine a winner.
In 2012, the last time the seat was open, 11 Republicans ran to replace GOP Rep. Sue Myrick. Robert Pittenger led the primary, though under the laws then in effect, his 32 percent forced him into a runoff. This year he would have won.
Of the 10 candidates, two — Chris Anglin and Kathie Day — have barely campaigned. Gary Dunn, Fern Shubert and Albert Wylie have raised little money. A poll in the National Journal’s Hotline this month showed Bishop leading the field with 31 percent and only one other candidate — Rushing — in double digits. Twenty-one percent of likely voters were undecided.
Two outside groups have tried to help their candidates reach 30 percent.
The National Realtors political action committee has spent $1.3 million — a record in any 9th District race — on ads supporting Brown, the PAC’s former fundraising chair. Individual Realtors have accounted for most of the nearly $260,000 she’s raised in her campaign.
Club for Growth Action, an anti-tax group supporting Bishop, has spent nearly $147,000 on ads and mailers targeting Brown and Rushing. This week it spent $49,000 on cable TV ads questioning Brown’s conservative credentials.
“Typical political maneuvering from career politicians,” said Brown’s consultant, Chris Sinclair. “This is typical. When they’re losing they go on the attack.”
A nationalized election?
The primary winner will face McCready, who has raised $2.8 million — more than five times as much as any of the Republicans. The GOP candidates already have been attacking him and the perception that he’s been vague about issues.
“Why don’t you stand for anything Dan?” Rivenbark said she’d ask McCready at the WBT forum.
“What you need is a contrast with Dan McCready,” Bishop told the same audience. “I’ll say it forthrightly and he will not tell you where he stands.”
Republicans have said a vote for McCready is a vote for the most liberal Democrats in Congress. Bishop has a digital ad that says McCready is backed by abortion rights supporters “fighting to legalize late-term abortion — even infanticide.”
A McCready spokeswoman suggested it will be hard to paint the candidate with a liberal brush. Casting himself as a centrist against conservative Republican Mark Harris in 2018, McCready trailed on Election Day by less than half of one percent in unofficial returns in a district that Trump carried by 11 points.
“The people of North Carolina’s 9th District have seen that Dan McCready is a different kind of Democrat,” said Amanda Sherman. “They’re smart enough to know that and not buy into the rhetoric and partisanship being thrown their way.”
The 9th District is expected to be the most contested special election of the year, and the most expensive. Each party will see it as a springboard to 2020. In 2017, candidates and outside groups spent at least $55 million a special congressional election in suburban Atlanta.
“This is probably going to be the only competitive special election (in the country),” said Taylor of the Cook Political Report. “It’s destined to become nationalized.”
There will be other issues, including the election fraud allegations that prompted the new election as well as the bribery indictments that have ensnared former state GOP chairman Robin Hayes and a top party donor.
But one longtime Republican strategist said none of those issues may matter in the end.
“It’s basically going to come down to the two candidates and the turnout,” said Carter Wrenn, who ran several campaigns for former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.