The Hill describes Tuesday’s special election in North Carolina’s 9th congressional districts as a “must-win” for the Republican Party. I don’t see it that way. It’s true that the district has been in Republican hands for sixty years and also that Donald Trump carried it by twelve points in 2016. It should certainly be a safe seat for the GOP, and the fact that it isn’t ought to be quite alarming to them. Yet, it’s hard to see why it really matters who which party wins the seat.
The Vox explainer can get you up to speed on all the unique events that led up to this special election. It certainly has enough non-repeatable elements that it can’t really serve as harbinger for the outcome of other elections in other places. In short, widespread ballot fraud conducted by GOP operatives in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm election resulted in an invalidation of the results. That hasn’t been good for the Republican brand in the district.
The 2018 Democrat Dan McCready, a former Marine and an Iraq War veteran, is still in the race and has been campaigning for about two years now. To run against him, the Republicans chose a state senator named Dan Bishop who is best known nationally for being a sponsor of the anti-transgender “bathroom bill” that caused so much pain and embarrassment for the North Carolina business establishment, even costing Charlotte the right to host the 2016 NBA All-Star game.
Mindful that the nationalization of the 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district did not help Democrat Jon Ossoff, the DCCC has been focused on quietly working on field operations, and the Republicans are sounding like they might lose the seat on Tuesday. If they do, the Democrats will certainly try to argue that it’s an indication of how poisoned the environment has become for Republicans in the era of Trump, but the president wasn’t involved in tampering with people’s absentee ballots in 2018, nor did he choose a “bathroom bill” zealot to challenge for the seat. The local Republican Party will be the authors of defeat, if a defeat does indeed come.
The outcome is unlikely to make any discernible difference in Congress. Adding one seat to Nancy Pelosi’s majority won’t change a single thing about how the House of Representatives operates. If McCready were to win, he’d probably feel constrained about how often he could vote with her anyway, as he’d be representing constituents who prefer the Trump to the Speaker and will probably be voting for him in 2020. If the Republicans make a real run at retaking control of the House, then North Carolina’s 9th District would be among the first seats to fall.
Probably, the most likely way a special election upset could benefit the Democrats is if a lot of House Republicans get spooked and it leads to more retirements. If they get the sense that Trump +12 districts are vulnerable, that could happen because congresspeople prefer to “spend more time with their families” than to suffer the indignity of defeat.
The 9th District does include some parts of the Charlotte suburbs, so there will some things to learn from the results irrespective of who wins. Bishop’s socially conservative extremism is a bad fit for suburban voters, and even if he pulls out a victory it will not be surprising if he gets hammered there. I don’t know how much weight we can put on those numbers though if we’re trying to figure out how Trump will fare in North Carolina. Either way, what we learn will not be dependent on the actual outcome which could be very narrowly decided.
In any case, this isn’t a must-win election for either side. It’s competitive because the Republicans cheated in 2018 and got caught. They deserve to lose for that reason alone. It would send a bad message if they ultimately wind up holding this seat despite their criminal election tampering behavior. I’d say it’s more of a must-win for people who want to believe there’s justice in this world than it is for the Democrats or the Republicans.
If I lived in the state’s 9th District, I’d be looking to send a message about cheating more than I’d be choosing. between the candidates. Maybe enough voters will take that approach on Tuesday that the Democrats can add another seat to their majority.