‘Toss up’ 9th District race gains national attention as 2020 warm-up. Who has an edge?

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9th Congressional District special election

Republican Dan Bishop, Democrat Dan McCready, Libertarian Jeff Scott and Green Party candidate Allen Smith are running in the Sept. 10 special election.

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Even before Air Force One lands in Fayetteville next month, President Donald Trump has been at the forefront of Republican Dan Bishop’s campaign in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

“This race is about Donald Trump,” Bishop adviser Jim Blaine told Politico this week. “Dan’s embraced Trump 100 percent.”

Democrat Dan McCready, however, rarely mentions the president in a district that Trump carried by 12 points in 2016.

“This is an election about health care and Dan McCready,” said spokesman Matt Fried. “It’s going to be about who people trust more with their health care.”

For both candidates, the district has shaped the message that each hopes drives their voters to the polls.

Bishop and McCready are running in a special election that state elections officials ordered after finding evidence of ballot fraud in the 2018 election. Libertarian Jeff Scott and Green Party candidate Allen Smith are also running in the Sept. 10 special election.

The race has drawn national attention as a harbinger of 2020.

A Republican win would reinforce support for Trump’s position on issues such as immigration and show the strength of his coattails heading into his re-election campaign. It also would be a boost for a party that lost its House majority last fall.

A Democratic win would show the party could replicate its 2018 success by relying on issues like health care. And it would embarrass Republicans in a Trump-leaning district that includes the site of the 2020 GOP convention.

By all accounts, the race will come down to the wire. While internal polling by both parties shows a close race, Roll Call published a poll Friday that showed McCready up by 4 points, still within the margin of error. It also showed 47% approve of Trump’s performance while 48% disapprove.

“We still view this race as a toss up, but would still be more surprised by a McCready victory,” said Dave Wasserman, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. “It’s hard to believe Democrats’ enthusiasm advantage would be greater than last fall, before they took back the House.”

Reports out Friday from the Federal Election Commission showed McCready has continued to outpace Bishop in fundraising. He’s raised $5.6 million to Bishop’s $2 million and outspent him nearly 3-1.

But outside groups such as the National Republican Congressional Committee have spent about $6 million on Bishop’s behalf. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC tied to Republican House leadership, invested nearly $1 million on TV ads this week alone.

Meanwhile, groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EDF Action, an environmental PAC, have spent $2.7 million on behalf of McCready. That includes a $600,000 ad campaign the DCCC launched on Friday.

All that money is chasing few voters in what’s expected to be a low-turnout race.

So far early voting has favored Democrats. Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer found that through midweek, 12% of Mecklenburg County Democrats had voted compared with 7% of Republicans, a pattern also seen in the district’s other seven counties. That is higher than the margins in early voting in 2018. He said voting has seen “higher enthusiasm by Democrats.”

Last fall McCready led Republican Mark Harris by more than 7,300 votes in early- and absentee-voting. But after a GOP surge on Election Day, he trailed Harris by 905 votes.

“Everybody freaks out the first week of early voting, everybody’s hair’s on fire,” said GOP consultant Larry Shaheen. “Democrats are better at early-voting. Republicans show up later. And they vote.”

‘Socialists and radicals’

Speaking to Bishop supporters at a Monroe fundraiser this week, Donald Trump Jr. sought to tie McCready to Democratic “socialists” and what he called all ‘the Hamas wing of Congress.”

Bishop has echoed the charge.

“I’m conservative Dan . . . Pro-life. Pro-gun. And pro-wall,” he said in his first TV ad. “Wrong Dan? He’ll fall right in line with his friends — socialists, radicals, they hate the values that made America great.” On Facebook this month, he said McCready is running a campaign “right out of the radical leftist playbook.”

“They’re just trying to label him as a very far-left Democrat,” said political scientist David Thornton of Campbell University. “And I guess that’s the most reliable strategy for them: demonize your opponent, tie yourself to Trump and hope it works.”

The message is aimed at the Republican base in a district that in 2016 went heavily for Trump. And for voters like Ron Jones, it works. The 70-year-old Charlotte voter cast his ballot for Bishop at Morrison Library.

“Because he’s a Republican,” Jones explained. “That’s all I needed to know. I’ll probably never vote for a Democrat the rest of my life.”

While Republicans are trying to rally their base, a group called Black Americans to Re-elect the President, led by Republican Vernon Robinson, appears to be trying to depress Democratic votes. One ad running on black-oriented radio stations in part of the district features two African Americans talking about abortion.

“It looks like the Democrat doesn’t care that black babies are killed three times more likely than white babies by abortion,” a man says in the ad. “The next time a Democrat asks you for your vote, ask him why doesn’t he want our children.”

McCready supports abortion rights. Bishop has compared the Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing them to the 19th Century Dred Scott decision that ruled African Americans were not citizens.

Aiming for the middle

McCready casts himself as a moderate. He has disagreed with liberal Democrats who call for policies such as Medicare for All or bans on assault weapons.

“The question should not be whether Bishop’s base shows up, it’s whether the liberal base shows up for a moderate,” said Shaheen, the GOP strategist.

That doesn’t matter to some voters.

“Frankly, Dan (McCready) is not as progressive on some issues as I hope he would be,” said Cathy Lacienski, 64, who voted in south Charlotte. “But frankly, that’s the district. And it’s him.”

McCready is pushing issues like health care and education designed to appeal to less partisan voters.

“That’s a message that appeals to middle-of-the-road voters,” said Morgan Jackson, a McCready strategist. “If you’re going to be successful you’ve got to turn out your base and you’ve got to appeal to the middle.”

McCready has hammered Bishop over actions he took in the General Assembly, including a 2017 vote in which he was the only senator to vote against the final version of the Pharmacy Patient Fair Practices Act. The DCCC cites that vote in a new ad that portrays Bishop as a comic book villain beholden to drug companies.

But Bishop voted for an earlier version of the same bill. And although the DCCC ad also says he would deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, his Small Business Health Care Act, passed with votes from more than 30 Democrats, specifically calls for coverage of pre-existing conditions, even though critics say it would allow insurers to price that coverage out of reach for people.

Warm-up election

While TV ads blitz the airwaves, both sides are working quietly to get out their vote.

Fried said the Democrats’ 24 full-time organizers represent one of the largest grassroots efforts the state has seen in a congressional race. It was unclear how many organizers are working for Bishop.

Meanwhile, the Young Republican National Federation and College Republicans from outside North Carolina are planning two days of door-knocking for Bishop next week.

For both sides, the election is a warm-up for next year when North Carolina is once again expected to be a presidential battleground.

“A Bishop loss would be a poor sign for President Trump in a critical 2020 state,” said Wasserman of the Cook Report.

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.