The do-over election in North Carolina’s scandal-plagued 9th Congressional District was down to the wire Tuesday night as Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Dan Bishop battled for the last votes.
With a little over half of precincts reporting, the two were separated by roughly 500 votes, with Bishop maintaining a slight edge over McCready.
The election came one day after President Trump and Vice President Pence campaigned in the district to help boost the GOP state lawmaker in the surprisingly competitive race.
Voters in the state’s heavily Republican 3rd Congressional District also went to the polls on Tuesday, electing Republican Greg Murphy over Democrat Allen Thomas to succeed the late congressman Walter B. Jones (R).
The outcome in the 9th District was the culmination of a political saga that stretched out over more than two years — exploding into allegations of ballot fraud that prompted state and federal investigations and the cancellation of November’s general election.
Bishop, 55, is a Trump loyalist who came to prominence in 2016 after writing a controversial bill, enacted and then repealed, that would have dictated which bathrooms transgender people could use.
McCready, meanwhile, is a 36-year-old former Marine Corps officer and solar-energy investor who had been running for more than two years on a centrist platform.
The stakes for the special election were substantial — for one, measuring whether Trump had been able to recover any support in affluent suburbs such as the leafy districts south and east of downtown Charlotte where McCready has found surprisingly strong support.
The election could also indicate to what degree Republicans are in danger of losing the race next year for North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes or for Sen. Thom Tillis’s reelection.
A McCready win would not only raise those alarms but also send a signal to GOP lawmakers that the House majority may remain out of reach in 2020, accelerating a string of retirements.
A Bishop win, meanwhile, would likely send signals to Democrats that 2018’s “blue wave” could be ebbing in a presidential cycle, with Trump driving higher turnout among Republicans, offsetting the suburban erosion. It would also spark a round of second-guessing about national party strategy after Democratic groups spent millions of dollars in the final week to get McCready over the finish line.
Bishop got a late personal boost from the president, who won the district by 12 percentage points and held a campaign rally in Fayetteville on Monday to get out the vote. The president told the crowd, “to stop the far left, you must vote in tomorrow’s special election.”
In Monroe, N.C., voter Carolyn Slover, 27, said Tuesday that Trump’s visit “made me want to vote for Dan Bishop. It shows who he’s for and how they are a partnership.”
By all accounts, the race was tight going into its final days, according to published polls and interviews with the candidates and party officials.
In a sign of the toss-up nature, leaders of both parties in Washington sought to downplay the implications of the race before polls closed Tuesday.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who flew to the district Monday with Trump, suggested that the outcome of the race wouldn’t necessarily offer clues about 2020. “I can sit back, and I can tell you about all the special elections we lost in 2009 and that we won 63 seats” in the 2010 midterms, he said. “Special elections are just what they are: They’re special.”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) called the district “a very tough swing district,” even though Trump won by double digits in 2016 and Republicans have had a lock on the seat for decades.
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which poured millions into the race, also declined to discuss what a McCready win would mean. “It’s neck and neck,” she said. “But I can tell you we left everything, and I do mean everything, on the field.”
Several voters in Cumberland County who backed Bishop said Tuesday morning that Trump didn’t influence their choice, but rather the Democratic Party did.
“It wasn’t so much about voting for him as it was voting against the Democrats,” said Tom Driggers, 76. “I simply don’t believe in most of their policies. I’m like George Bush, I’m a conservative with common sense.”
Wayne Canady, 71, said he didn’t share any values with Democrats.
“You name an issue and I’m against their stance. All the troubles in the world stem from communism or socialism, look at the Democrats’ policies,” Canady said.
In Monroe, N.C., John Kirkpatrick, 36, said he backed McCready.
“I don’t necessarily vote for a party, I vote for an individual,” he said. “At the end of the day, I don’t agree with all that candidates represent, but I try to choose the best candidate to serve my community.”
The 9th District stretches from the affluent Charlotte suburbs east to poor rural counties and north to the military stronghold of Fayetteville. The race revolved largely around support for Trump and, to a lesser degree, by the fallout from the fraud scandal.
The state elections board found evidence that Leslie McCrae Dowless — a contractor for Mark Harris, McCready’s initial Republican opponent — illegally collected and in some cases filled out absentee ballots for voters in rural Bladen County, many of them elderly and African American. The board ordered a new election in January, and Harris, who had led in unofficial returns by 905 votes, opted not to run again.
“I’m dressed in blue today and voted for Dan McCready because he was robbed last time,” said Jill Salas, 51, a voter in Monroe, N.C.
According to statistics issued Monday by the state elections board, 81,548 voters cast early or absentee ballots before early voting closed this weekend. Just over 39 percent of those voters are registered Democrats, compared with about 33 percent of voters who are registered Republicans.
That subset of voters, the elections board said, trended slightly whiter and more female than the party registration of the district.
Both Republican and Democratic operatives acknowledged that McCready probably held a lead among the ballots cast before Tuesday, given the makeup of the electorate. But Republicans said they were confident that GOP voters, with Trump’s help, would push Bishop over the finish line on Election Day.
“It’s not unexpected that they would vote on Election Day,” Union County GOP Chairman Allison Powers said last week. “We have a lot of traditionalists. We are trying to convince them that it’s okay to vote early — especially in a race like this where they already know who they’re voting for.”
Spending on the race has approached $20 million, making it one of the most expensive special elections in U.S. history. McCready’s campaign spent nearly $5 million, while Bishop’s spending approached $2 million. Outside Republican-aligned groups added $6.8 million, while Democratic groups spent about $3.5 million, according to federal records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Much of that spending has been funneled into TV attack ads. Republicans have targeted McCready’s business record, suggesting that he prospered at taxpayers’ expense by lobbying state officials for tax breaks. Democrats, meanwhile, are accusing Bishop of doing the bidding of health insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry.
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.