What to watch for in Tuesday's North Carolina special elections

Posted at 6:51 AM, Sep 10, 2019

More than 10 months after Election Day, the final votes of the 2018 midterms will be cast on Tuesday in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District.

Democrat Dan McCready, a Marine Corps veteran, appeared to suffer a narrow defeat -- by fewer than 1,000 votes -- to Republican Mark Harris last November, but evidence of ballot fraud by a GOP operative connected with Harris surfaced before the results could be certified.

State investigators' long inquest drew national attention and, after a dramatic February finale, the North Carolina election board voted to re-run the race. Harris stood down almost immediately and Republican voters subsequently nominated state Sen. Dan Bishop, a conservative best known for his lead role in passing the state's "bathroom bill," legislation widely denounced as discriminatory and subsequently scaled back with the approval of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who campaigned against it.

But like almost every special election so far during Donald Trump's presidency, the results on Tuesday will also be viewed as a referendum on the White House. In addition to the Bishop-McCready race, voters in the state's 3rd Congressional District will likely be choosing between Republican state Rep. Greg Murphy and Democratic former Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas. They are vying to replace the late GOP Rep. Walter Jones, who died in February.

Early voting, which began last month, is now over. The polls are open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

Here's what to watch for in North Carolina.

Can Trump pull Bishop over the line in NC-09?

Trump plunged himself into the race with a steady stream of tweets pumping up Bishop -- and attacking McCready -- after the Republican won his primary in May. Vice President Mike Pence campaigned for Bishop on Monday afternoon before Trump kicked off his own rally in Fayetteville.

It was Trump's second big event in the state this summer, the first coming in Greenville, where the crowd chanted, "Send her back!" as he railed against the Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Somali-born congresswoman. Bishop put a clip from a different part of that speech in a recent television ad.

"Dan McCready is an ultra-liberal," Trump says in the spot. "He likes open borders and he really admires socialism."

Trump has leaned on that message in the run-up to the election, tweeting in August that McCready "likes the 'Squad' more than North Carolina."

But the Democrat, a businessman and Iraq War veteran running on a moderate platform, doesn't fit the caricature. The question as the results roll in on Tuesday night is whether Trump's attempts to portray every Democrat as a progressive in the mold of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez moves voters toward Republicans.

In a fundraising email last week, McCready -- who has not appeared alongside any high profile national Democrats -- played up the wider implications of the race.

"This race could be the canary in the coal mine for what is to come in 2020," he wrote. "That's exactly why outside GOP groups have poured over $6 million into my district."

Will the clouds of corruption open up and wash out the GOP?

Bishop had no part in the initial midterm race, but he's only up for the House seat now after a consuming and drawn-out investigation marked by a series of sensational revelations detailing evidence of election fraud on behalf of the Harris campaign.

The story might have dropped off the national radar toward the end of last year, but the probe was only heating up and remains fresh on the minds of most voters in the district, a reliably Republican carve-out that almost flipped to the Democrats even before the scandal surfaced.

McCready, meanwhile, has mostly followed the blueprint that carried so many other moderate Democrats to victory last year: running a no-drama campaign focused, for his part, on a record of military service. That included a Monday afternoon "Operation Get Out the Vote" rally in Fayetteville, where he described Tuesday's vote as "the people's chance to get justice" -- a clear reminder of the mess that made a second election necessary.

"We face politics at its worst in Bladen County," McCready said of the county where the ballot scheme was centered. "We saw what we know now was the largest case of election fraud and modern day American history. I'm gonna tell you the easy thing to do when we saw that would have been to throw in the towel. I chose to fight."

When is a win more like a loss?

The Republicans, especially Trump, will take a pair of victories in North Carolina and -- if history is any guide -- celebrate them as a crushing defeat for Democrats.

The reality, however, is more complicated.

Anything short of an outright win in the 3rd District would be a disaster for the GOP, who have held the seat -- through Jones -- for nearly a quarter century. But real success and reason for optimism going forward would also require a resounding victory in the 9th District, a Republican stronghold since the early 1960s.

Turnout is likely to drop from the midterms, which tends to hurt Democrats, but Trump's statewide approval has shown no signs of improving. In the initial, since discarded count, Harris edged out McCready by less than a percentage point. A repeat of that result should still sting for Republicans, given both Trump (2016) and Mitt Romney (2012) won in the district by about a dozen points.

Tuesday's finally tally figures to be much closer.

As CNN's Harry Enten noted on Monday, no publicly available pre-election data has come out showing either candidate leading by more than four points.