In North Carolina Do-Over Vote, a Reliable Republican District Is Up for Grabs


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Bob Dylan’s nasally voice singing of changing times blasted from the speakers and Democratic activists crowded the patio of a craft-beer emporium on Friday as Megan and Christopher Kubala explained why, after a lifetime of ignoring midterm elections, they had just voted to elect the first Democrat since the civil rights era to represent their North Carolina congressional district.

“I hadn’t voted in midterms, but then after Trump got elected, I started seeing the importance,” said Ms. Kubala, a 51-year-old Democrat and bank executive who called the president “seriously disturbed.” “I’m a little more awake now.”

Mr. Kubala, a 46-year-old Republican, chimed in. “I feel like he’s already won once,” he said of the Democratic candidate, Dan McCready, who fell 905 votes short last year in an election that was overturned after state investigators concluded that the Republican candidate’s campaign had engaged in an illegal voting scheme. “It’s not fair to make him win twice.”

Now Mr. McCready and his new Republican opponent, Dan Bishop, will face off on Tuesday in a do-over of the tainted contest. The odd-year election in the Ninth Congressional District, which stretches from the suburbs of Charlotte to rural and exurban areas farther east, is in many ways the first test of the political terrain heading into 2020, and of the two parties’ dueling strategies for winning over voters.

With public and private polls showing the race nearly tied, Democrats and Republicans are pouring millions of dollars and their most powerful resources into the contest, blanketing the airwaves with negative television advertising. President Trump plans to rally voters in Fayetteville on Monday, while Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to appear on the other end of the district in Wingate — a one-two punch that observers said reflected Republicans’ deep concern about losing the race.

This section of the state has been a reliable Republican stronghold. A Democrat has not represented the district since the early 1960s, and Mr. Trump won it by 12 points in 2016. But Republicans have seen their grip on areas like these loosen as Mr. Trump’s brand of divisive politics has turned off independents and suburban voters, especially women and those with college educations.

“In a normal political climate, not a whole lot of attention would be paid to this district — it’s a fairly safe Republican district — but these are not normal political times,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. “Sending them both to the opposite ends of the district, to me at least, sends a signal that Republicans need to rally as much support as they can for Bishop in the last hours.”

Mr. Bishop, 55, a state senator perhaps best known for sponsoring the so-called bathroom bill that required transgender people to use restrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate, said he was “surging” but could use the Trumpian boost.

“I think the president will put us over the top,” he said in an interview on Friday, in between greeting early voters at a public library in Monroe.

Mr. McCready’s campaign said it knocked on 100,000 doors twice over the weekend. It is part of an elaborate effort — powered by data analytics and digital tools — to turn out his supporters, including a sizable African-American population and a smaller but substantial number of Native Americans, and change the face of the district’s electorate.

His fate hinges in many ways on voters like the Kubalas, educated professionals who have not typically engaged in politics but are concerned about the direction of the country.

Mr. Bishop is counting on voters like Ashley Johnson, 34, a stay-at-home mother who said her support for the president had led her to cast her early ballot for the Republican.

“I’m a major Trump supporter, so whoever is most likely to support him is who I want,” Ms. Johnson said outside the Fire Department in Wesley Chapel where she voted, as she balanced her 3-year-old son, Bowen, on her hip while he strained to see the fire trucks.

She said that she was not particularly enamored of Mr. Bishop — calling him “politician-y,” unlike Mr. Trump — but that those considerations came second to her desire to elect an ally of the president on issues like building a border wall and lowering taxes. “He’s most likely to go with what I support,” Ms. Johnson said of Mr. Bishop.

Mr. Bishop has tied his hopes and his political identity to Mr. Trump and warned that a vote for his opponent would empower radical Democrats in Washington. His campaign has been running an ad featuring circus music and bobbling clowns wearing the faces of Mr. McCready and prominent progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, calling them all “crazy liberal clowns” who are “downright scary.”

“He’s enabled by the far left,” Mr. Bishop said of Mr. McCready.

The message appears to be resonating with conservatives in North Carolina, who say they have been alarmed by the vocal progressives who grab headlines and the liberal proposals that have come to the fore since Democrats took over the House last fall, including the idea of impeaching Mr. Trump and a vote over the summer to label his comments racist.

“I grew up as a Democrat, but when it gets to the point now that things are so far left, it takes away part of your choice,” said Bob Stone, 56, a telephone company employee from Wesley Chapel. “I hear them say that they’ll be an independent thinker when they’re campaigning, but every one of them that I see, after they get in, it’s all lock step and ‘Russia, Russia, Russia! Racism, racism, racism!’ It gets old.”

Mr. Bishop argues that his unapologetic support of Mr. Trump, who endorsed him via tweet in May, signals to voters who are looking for someone to back up the president that he is in line with their values.

“It’s a shorthand,” he said. “They have seen this president take relentless abuse from the Democratic Party, from media — hell, from the perversion of the law enforcement agencies of the nation. And he needs support, and I intend to give it to him.”

Mr. McCready, 36, a Harvard-educated Marine veteran and centrist, has spent most of his campaign talking about health care, rerunning Democrats’ successful 2018 playbook of largely ignoring Mr. Trump, steering clear of progressive dreams like “Medicare for all” and the Green New Deal, and focusing on pocketbook issues over partisanship.

National Democrats have deliberately remained quiet about their support for Mr. McCready and dumped substantial money into advertising only in the final phase of the race, including a television spot that portrays a mask-wearing Mr. Bishop as “a hero for the big drug companies.” It spotlights Mr. Bishop’s record in the State Legislature, where he opposed expanding Medicaid and was the sole vote against a measure allowing pharmacists to inform people of lower-priced alternatives for their prescription drugs.

Outside Brawley’s Beverage, the bar where his campaign held a dusk-time rally on Friday that drew the Kubalas and hundreds of other supporters, Mr. McCready implored voters to knock on doors, call friends and otherwise go all-out to help him win on Tuesday.

“Y’all, we deserve a leader in Washington who’s interested in working across the aisle on common-sense reforms to lower health care costs,” Mr. McCready said.

Later, he picked carefully around a reporter’s question about what he thought of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He noted that she had already been elected to the post, so his promise last year not to support her for the job was moot.

“I think that we need new voices,” he said. “We need new blood in Washington.” Next topic.

Last November, North Carolina officials refused to certify the results of the race between Mr. McCready and his first Republican opponent, Mark Harris, because of “irregularities” in the balloting. A monthslong investigation concluded in February that the Republicans had engaged in an illegal voter-turnout effort, prompting officials to overturn the results and set a new election. Mr. Harris withdrew from the contest, setting off a crowded Republican primary that Mr. Bishop won.

That makes 27 months straight that Mr. McCready has been running for Congress.

“After this battle that we’ve been through,” Mr. McCready said on Friday, “Sept. 10 is our chance for justice.”


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