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Trump, Pence rally support for Republican candidate in North Carolina special election

President Trump urged Republican voters in North Carolina on Sept. 9 to support Dan Bishop in a special election for a vacant House seat. (Video: The Washington Post)

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — President Trump and Vice President Pence swept into North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District on Monday to rally support for Dan Bishop, the Republican candidate in a special election that could be a bellwether for the president’s political fortunes in 2020.

Headlining a “Keep America Great” rally at the Crown Expo Center here, Trump said Bishop would support his agenda on issues including illegal immigration and Second Amendment rights.

“Tomorrow is your chance to send a clear message to the America-hating left,” Trump told the crowd shortly before calling Bishop onto the stage. The president went on to deliver a wide-ranging speech that mirrored his usual campaign rally fare. He defended his tariffs on Chinese goods, took aim at the media, denounced energy-efficient lightbulbs and warned that Democrats are “not big believers in religion.”

He also drew cheers from the crowd when he joked that he would remain in office through 2026 so that he could be president when the United States co-hosts the World Cup that year.

The White House’s heavy involvement in the race — the president, vice president and Trump’s chief of staff spent at least part of their day in rural North Carolina — stood in contrast to Trump’s remarks earlier Monday, when he denied that the contest had any national importance.

“No, I don’t see it as a bellwether,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “They always ask that question.”

The 9th District has long been in Republican hands, and Trump won it by 12 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016. But recent polling has shown Democrat Dan McCready within striking distance of Bishop, upping the stakes for both parties in a race that is being closely watched for insights into the 2020 electoral landscape.

After Trump called him onstage, Bishop, a state senator best known for sponsoring North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill,” thanked the president and told supporters that “the last thing he needs is for the 9th District to send him another Nancy Pelosi clone.”

Contrary to Bishop’s claim, McCready has sought to distance himself from Pelosi and previously pledged not to support the California Democrat for speaker.

If McCready wins on Tuesday, Republicans in Washington worry that even more members of their party will announce retirements in the coming weeks, joining the 16 who have already fled for the exits. If Bishop wins, meanwhile, Trump probably will point to the victory as evidence that he is an asset, not a liability, to Republican candidates next fall.

Aware of the race’s potential impact, outside groups have spent a combined total of more than $10 million to boost McCready and Bishop, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s on top of the nearly $5 million McCready’s campaign has spent and the $2 million spent by Bishop’s campaign.

Voters in North Carolina’s heavily Republican 3rd District will also go to the polls on Tuesday to elect a successor to the late congressman Walter B. Jones (R). The Republican candidate in that race, Greg Murphy, briefly joined Trump onstage Monday night. As he and Bishop took their turns standing next to Trump, both men were wearing dark suits and bright red ties that appeared to be inspired by the president’s signature look.

At one point during the event, after Bishop’s remarks, Trump paused while an attendee who had a medical episode received assistance. He then quipped, “I guess Dan’s speech wasn’t so good.”

Trump has loomed large over the 9th District race. Bishop’s closing TV ad features footage of the president praising him and blasting McCready as an “ultra liberal” who “likes open borders” and “really admires socialism.”

Democrats seized on the rally, casting the appearance by Trump and Pence as a sign that the White House is deeply worried about losing the seat.

“The president and vice president are in North Carolina today desperately trying to save a seat they won by double-digits in 2016,” North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said in a statement.

Goodwin also argued that Republicans had “tried to steal this election by targeting the elderly, African-American, and Native American voters through the largest case of election fraud in modern history.”

McCready had run for the seat in 2018 and had initially appeared to have lost to his Republican opponent, Mark Harris, by a razor-thin margin. But allegations that a Harris campaign contractor committed widespread ballot fraud prompted state and federal investigations and, ultimately, the voiding of the November 2018 election result.

State election officials then ordered a special election; Harris decided not to run, and Bishop bested nine other candidates to win the Republican nomination. McCready ran unopposed.

Pence spent much of his day traveling with Bishop and campaigning on his behalf. He visited a Bishop campaign call center, delivered remarks at Wingate University and accompanied Bishop to two barbecue restaurants, where they met with dozens of voters.

In interviews, attendees at the rally were generally forgiving of two of the president’s recent stumbles — his incorrect claim that Alabama was going to be hit hard last week by Hurricane Dorian, and his now-rescinded invitation to Afghan and Taliban leaders to meet at Camp David.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Bill Stewart, a 65-year-old rally attendee, said of Trump’s move to invite the Taliban to U.S. soil in the days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “No one else has ever tried to do this. It’s just kill, kill, kill. Let’s see if we can start a conversation — not necessarily a friendship, but a negotiation.”

Sonmez reported from Washington. Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.