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Opinion North Carolina’s election results provide a thought experiment for 2020

Republican Dan Bishop waits to speak with President Trump after defeating Dan McCready in Tuesday’s special election in North Carolina’s 9th District. (Nell Redmond/AP)

President Trump’s tweeting of a “Trump 2024” meme should concentrate the minds of his opponents. So should the results of North Carolina’s special congressional election Tuesday.

Perhaps it’s a mistake to take the first too seriously. But it does underscore the utterly abnormal, chaotic, norm-breaking and corrupt nature of this administration. We have a leader who, like some of his dictator friends abroad, would love to be president for life. This means he will do everything he can to divide the country by sowing anxiety and intergroup hatred, something he did with gusto on the eve of the Tar Heel State’s balloting.

The North Carolina results are the occasion for a useful thought experiment. If Democrat Dan McCready had defeated Republican Dan Bishop rather than lose to him by about two percentage points, we would be in the midst of Armageddon-inflected political punditry.

Combined with a spate of new polls showing Trump’s disapproval ratings in the 55- to 57-percent range, such an outcome would have created Democratic “Trump is toast” euphoria. And it could have sparked a panic among Republicans about the costs of allying with a president who plays fast and loose with intelligence, seems to profit personally from Defense Department outlays and encourages reprimands of scientists who simply want to tell the truth.

Instead, we have learned from North Carolina and the new polls that: (1) divisions between rural and metropolitan voters are deepening; (2) Republicans will have great trouble winning any suburban-dominated district, which will make it very hard to win back the House; (3) the vast majority of incumbent House Republicans represent very pro-Trump seats and have no political interest in breaking with him; (4) life will stay complicated for vulnerable Republican senators up for reelection in swing states because they need turnout from voters turned on by Trump but also suburban crossover voters turned off by Trump; (5) division, distraction and fear will always be Trump’s play; and (6) a large majority of the American electorate would like to throw Trump out of the White House, but Democrats will have to make it easy for them to do so. There will be no miraculous solution to the Trump problem.

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The good news for Republicans in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District is that they held the seat — not a trivial matter. McCready came even closer to winning in the 2018 midterm elections than he did in the new race, forced by voter-fraud charges against the Republicans. The good news for Democrats is that while Trump carried the district by 12 points in 2016, McCready lost by only two. A comparable pro-Democratic swing in 2020 would move the state to the Democratic presidential nominee against Trump and be highly troublesome for incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis.

But the makeup of Tuesday’s vote is also revealing. The Democrat ran better than he did last year in the Charlotte suburbs of Mecklenburg County and also, according to McCready’s pollster Kevin Akins, in the precincts closest to Charlotte in Republican-heavy Union County. But McCready ran behind his 2018 showing in the rest of the district, particularly in rural areas.

As a result, suburban Democratic first-termers can feel hopeful about next year, but their colleagues in more rural seats should take notice and “be realistic about how elastic any heavily rural congressional district can be,” Akins said in an interview.

“The country got a snapshot reminder of the realignment that’s occurring all around us,” he added.

Molly Murphy, another McCready strategist, said national Democrats could usefully take note of how effective the health-care issue was for McCready, particularly his focus on Bishop’s votes as a state senator putting him on the side of the pharmaceutical companies.

Especially in the district’s rural areas, Trump’s campaigning the day before the election almost certainly had an impact on boosting GOP base turnout. And Trump gave a preview of 2020 with incendiary fearmongering, accusing McCready of favoring the release of “thousands of dangerous criminal aliens into your communities” who were guilty of “sexual assault, robbery, drug crimes, kidnapping and homicide.” And the Democrats, in Trump’s rendition, became “the socialist Democrat Party.”

Trump knows he can’t win by offering a sunny rendition of his time in office. He has to turn his opponents into ghouls. The polls make clear he will lose if 2020 is a referendum on him. He can win only if he makes it a referendum on the Democrats. Their job is to make that as difficult as possible.

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Read more:

Henry Olsen: North Carolina’s special election is great news for Trump’s reelection chances

David Byler: What you can — and can’t — expect to learn from the North Carolina special election

Greg Sargent: As Trump dials up the hate, a new poll shows he’s in trouble

Jonathan Capehart: What I learned about the Democrats at a family barbecue in North Carolina

Max Boot: Yes, Trump is losing it. But don’t pretend he ever had it to begin with.