The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats didn’t win in North Carolina’s special election, but here’s why they’re still celebrating

Republican Dan Bishop narrowly defeated Democrat Dan McCready in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District race on Sept. 10. (Video: The Washington Post)

Democrats came within two points of picking up a seat in a pro-Trump, Republican congressional district in North Carolina on Tuesday night. They didn’t win, but their results suggest strength going into 2020 on a couple of different fronts that should make Democrats feel good about keeping, or even expanding, their House majority.

  1. This race was a good test case for Democrats’ strength with the all-important suburban voter going into 2020, and they did well there.
  2. North Carolina will be a competitive state at the Senate, governor and presidential levels.
  3. And, all things considered, this is supposed to be Trump country, and about half the district voted for the Democrat, not once but in two elections in a row.

Trump won this rural-suburban seat in 2016 by 12 percentage points; in 2018, Democrat Dan McCready nearly won it, but the election was thrown out on allegations of ballot fraud that benefited the Republican. McCready ran for it again, in Tuesday’s do-over election, against Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop. McCready did well in the Charlotte suburbs. Generally, suburbs are battlegrounds in House races across the country next year.

One note of caution for Democrats: Based on early results, it doesn’t look like they managed to turn out black voters in significantly higher numbers, even though they spent time and money trying to do just that.

Both sides recognized the national implications of this one House race. In his victory speech, Bishop cast his win as the “first step toward taking back the House of Representatives in 2020.” He ran up the score by winning rural voters in the rest of the district.

But realistically, Bishop’s win portends trouble for Republicans. After the 2016 elections, there are about 60 fewer Republican-leaning districts, based on the Cook Political Report’s partisan ranking. We’re not saying Democrats can suddenly win all of those, but the fact they got close to winning in this Republican stronghold, which has sent a Republican to Congress for the past 50 years, recasts what’s possible for them in 2020.

Why Trump cares so much about this special election in North Carolina

It’s the same way the Democrats’ loss in some special elections before the 2018 midterms was actually a harbinger of good news for them.

In 2017, Democrats lost their fourth special election in a row when Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel in Georgia’s 6th District. But as in this North Carolina race, it was impressive that Democrats even got that close in a reliably Republican district. It suggested that Trump fatigue is taking hold among suburban voters. And in 2018, Democrats won Georgia’s 6th with Lucy McBath — and took control of the House.

“Tonight’s razor-thin result in this ruby-red district solidifies the fact that Democrats are pushing further into Republican strongholds and are in a commanding position to protect and expand our House majority in 2020,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement.

Still, a loss is a loss. Republicans argue that this race is not indicative of where the national mood is. It’s called special election for a reason; the circumstances are special.

In particular, North Carolina Republicans were running with a tarnished brand. An operative working for the Republican nominee in 2018 is accused of forging mail-in ballots, and judges threw out the entire race. That's the whole reason Tuesday's election happened.

Also, the state’s GOP chairman was indicted in April amid a campaign finance bribery scandal. And in 2016, Democrats won the governor’s mansion after national and local backlash to a Republican-led bathroom bill, of which Bishop was the lead sponsor.

But privately, some Democrats weren’t expecting to win this race. They just wanted to get close and scare off Republicans from big challenges in 2020. They may get their wish. The Post’s Mike DeBonis reports that Republicans were concerned that a loss in North Carolina could lead to the retirement of more Republican lawmakers across the country, expanding the map even further for Democrats.

The top 10 House races of 2020

They didn’t lose, but with elections like these, perception matters almost as much as reality. And the perception is, undoubtedly, one of strength for Democrats going into a big election year at all levels.