Just 10 months ago, Democrat Dan McCready easily won Robeson County, racking up a margin of almost 5,000 votes in a county that hadn’t elected its first Republican until a few years ago.
But in Tuesday’s special 9th District congressional election, McCready barely edged Republican Dan Bishop in the county.
It was Bishop’s performance in Robeson and three other eastern counties that helped lift him to a narrow victory over McCready.
Bishop’s win underscored the challenge Democrats have among conservative rural voters. By tying himself to President Donald Trump, Bishop outperformed Mark Harris, the 2018 GOP candidate, in seven of the 9th District’s eight counties. He flipped two counties McCready had carried and came close to flipping another.
But it also amplified Republican challenges in more affluent urban areas. In Mecklenburg County, McCready improved on his 2018 showing in winning all but one precinct in what had been strongly Republican southeast Charlotte.
“Mecklenburg’s classic Republican southeast Charlotte wedge has pretty much collapsed,” said political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College.
Bishop beat McCready by just under 4,000 votes. Harris led him by 905 votes after the 2018 election, nullified after evidence of election fraud by a Harris campaign operative.
Democrats sought a silver lining in Tuesday’s results that gave Bishop a 2-point win in a district Trump carried by nearly 12. But Republicans lauded the victory and the impact of Trump’s election eve rally in Fayetteville.
“It is directly as a result of the president coming in and doing that rally for Dan Bishop and pulling him across the finish line to victory last night,” GOP national Chair Ronna McDaniel told Fox News Wednesday.
Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, told reporters on Wednesday that the GOP’s digital advertising and grassroots canvassing boosted turnout and fueled the Republican victory. He also alluded to the president’s July rally in Greenville.
“Turnout in Cumberland County was higher than we’d expect given historical precedent,” Parscale said, characterizing the president’s two appearances as “priceless” events that “dominated news coverage for days.”
In Robeson County, registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans 60% to 13%. But they’re the kind of conservative Democrats once known as Jessecrats who helped elect Republican Sen. Jesse Helms six times. And in 2012, no county gave a higher percentage of votes to the so-called Marriage Amendment, the short-lived constitutional amendment that essentially banned same-sex marriage.
“The main thing I heard was (voters) want somebody who shares their values, somebody going to look out for middle-class working American, who shares Christian values,” said state Sen. Danny Britt, a Republican who represents the county. “They saw McCready as . . . a wealthy elitest.”
An aggressive TV ad campaign by national Republican groups sought to paint him exactly that way.
Phillip Stephens, the GOP chair of Robeson County, said conservative values pushed voters toward Bishop. Though criticized in some circles as the author of House Bill 2, the 2016 measure that required transgender people to use the bathrooms of the gender on their birth certificate in government buildings, it worked to his advantage in Robeson, Stephens said.
“When they called him the bathroom bill sponsor they thought they were attacking him,” Stephens said. “But in the rural areas that was seen as a compliment.”
Bishop also benefited from support from GOP Senate colleagues like Britt and Sen. Tom McInnis, who represents three rural counties in the district. Bishop’s consultants, Jim Blaine and Ray Martin, had worked with the Senate Republicans in Raleigh and on campaigns. McInnis said Bishop, a Charlotte lawyer, had another advantage appealing to rural voters.
“Bishop’s mother is from Bladen County,” McInnis said. “He remembers the rural aspects of North Carolina through his family.”
But David Wasserman, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, said, “It’s less of story of Bishop having a strong connection to (Robeson County) than McCready having a weak connection to the county.”
On election night, Trump seemed to take credit for Bishop’s win.
“Dan Bishop was down 17 points 3 weeks ago,” the president tweeted. “He then asked me for help, we changed his strategy together, and he ran a great race.”
Polls, however, showed the race close up to the end. But U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows said Bishop did change his strategy a few days into early voting, which had shown a big Democratic advantage.
“We talked about a full embrace of President Trump and running a decidedly pro-Trump message about Day 5 or Day 6 of early voting,” Meadows told McClatchy Wednesday. “I saw the numbers start to change at that point. . . . It’s a validation that if you run a campaign based on being true to who your values which for Dan Bishop was more of a pro-Trump agenda, the voters will respond.”
How much Trump’s rally or Vice President Mike Pence’s day-long swing through the district had to do with the result isn’t clear. What is, said Wasserman, is “the national Democratic brand is underwater in much of rural North Carolina, even among registered Democrats.”
But Democrats say they’re encouraged by the vote.
“Last night’s narrow Republican win in a district Trump won by a dozen points is an ominous warning sign for (Sen. Thom) Tillis . . . and other Republicans who will be on the ballot in North Carolina in 2020,” state Democratic spokesman Robert Howard wrote Wednesday.
McCready strategist Morgan Jackson said McCready was hurt by the absence of strong local Democratic candidates in the eastern counties. But he said McCready showed how a Democrat can whittle the Republican advantage in a district like the 9th.
“The race might not have been successful last night,” he said. “But it might prove to be the blueprint for Democrats to compete for years to come.”
Brian Murphy and Michael Wilner of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed.