PEMBROKE, N.C. — David Locklear and James Oxendine work on the same construction crew and both call rural Robeson County, N.C., home. They arrived together to cast early votes in next week’s House special election.
From there, the two diverged, and it had little to do with the candidates on the 9th Congressional District ballot.
Locklear, 65, said his vote for Democrat Dan McCready was mainly about registering his opposition to President Trump: “I don’t like his attitude, period,” he said.
Oxendine, 60, explained his vote for Republican Dan Bishop: “Trump said to vote for him, and I like Trump.”
A political saga that has stretched over more than two years — exploding into allegations of ballot fraud that prompted state and federal investigations and the cancellation of November’s general election — is set to end Tuesday with an election destined to serve as a referendum on Trump and a key barometer for the 2020 elections.
For Republicans, that would appear to be promising news in a district that preferred Trump by 12 percentage points in 2016. Bishop is showing no separation from the president, and his campaign’s closing TV ad prominently features footage of Trump attacking McCready at a July rally as an “ultraliberal” who “likes open borders and “really admires socialism.”
Bishop “will indeed defend your values,” Trump says, delivering his endorsement as the ad shows McCready alongside images of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Yet the race between Bishop and McCready is remarkably tight, according to the candidates, political operatives and public polls. It has prompted an all-hands effort in both parties to turn out voters — culminating in planned visits Monday from Trump at one end of the district and Vice President Pence at the other.
The stakes for the race go beyond a single congressional seat. For one, it will measure whether the “blue wave” that swept House Democrats into the majority last year continues to roll and whether Republicans have been able to recover support in suburban precincts such as the subdivisions of south Charlotte and neighboring Union County where much of the district’s votes are likely to be cast.
In Washington, GOP officials quietly fear that a Bishop loss could turn a steady stream of House retirements — 16 so far — into a torrent that could make retaking the chamber next year a near-impossible task. Democrats, meanwhile, fear a decisive McCready loss could give Republicans momentum heading into 2020, stoke anxiety about the leftward lurch of the party’s presidential candidates, and spark internal recriminations that could compound a summer shake-up in the party’s House campaign arm.
For McCready, Tuesday’s election is the culmination of a 27-month slog that initially appeared to end in a narrow Nov. 6 defeat before allegations of rampant absentee ballot fraud perpetrated by a contractor for his then-Republican opponent, Mark Harris, prompted the state elections board to call the new election.
Throughout, the 36-year-old Marine Corps veteran turned solar-energy investor has stuck to a careful message of bipartisanship focused on health care and education, taking aim at “special interests” and “broken politics” but not Trump directly. And he brushes off the last-ditch press from the White House, which has included presidential tweets and robocalls.
“He’s bringing in everybody he can to bail him out,” McCready said of Bishop in an interview. “I’m just going to keep doing my thing . . . People are ready for leaders who are going to reach across the aisle and work on the real problems people are having.”
Bishop, a 55-year-old state senator, said his campaign imperative is simple: Let the voters of the district know that he is with Trump, through thick or in thin.
“A lot of people would like to believe that there’s an opportunity in today’s Congress for somebody to go up as a moderate and somehow chart a different path. That’s just not how it’s working right now,” he said in an interview.
Absentee ballot scandal
One factor that is shaking up the race is the fraud scandal involving an operative in the rural eastern part of the district who directed an effort to illegally collect and, in many cases, fill out absentee ballots in favor of Harris.
Delivering an otherwise anodyne speech at an upscale retirement community in the Charlotte suburb of Matthews, McCready was at his most animated discussing the scandal, which mainly targeted the elderly and minorities.
“We saw what we now know is the largest case of election fraud in modern-day American history,” he said. “And mark my words: This election on Sept. 10 is the people’s chance to get justice.”
That’s a message Democrats have been gently pushing alongside health care and bipartisanship — particularly to African Americans and the Lumbee tribe of Native Americans, which includes tens of thousands of voters in the eastern reaches of the district.
Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based consultant and senior Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee adviser, said that although the advertising has not mentioned the scandal, it has suffused the race.
“People are knocking doors and reminding people that they’re having this election because their vote’s been stolen, and it’s more important to turn out this time,” he said. “People know what’s at stake.”
That appeared to be true even at a polling place in a well-to-do Charlotte neighborhood, where retired physician Don Russ, 71 — typically a Republican voter — cast a ballot for McCready.” “We’re not cheaters,” he said. “We don’t respect that.”
But in Pembroke, the historic center of the Lumbees — some of whose ballots were reportedly targeted for fraud by Leslie McCrae Dowless, who is charged with perpetrating the scheme in neighboring Bladen County — multiple McCready voters said they were afraid the opposite would be true.
“They’re wondering if it’s even worth their time,” Concetta Bullard, 31, said of her fellow Lumbees.
McCready and national Democrats have made a special effort to reach out to the Lumbee community, in part by backing their decades-long struggle for federal tribal recognition. But Lumbee voters — most of them culturally conservative and devoutly Christian — are split.
Daniel Barnes, a 61-year-old retired state employee from nearby Shannon, lamented the leftward tack of the national Democratic Party and said he had recently registered as a political independent after spending most of his life as a Democrat.
“No party is perfect,” he said. “But my wife and I personally don’t like how Democrats went liberal on certain standards that we were raised and taught against, and No. 1 is abortion. . . . I just can’t see being affiliated with that.”
National political dynamic
The final weeks of the election have been marked by scads of TV ad spending by the campaigns as well as outside party-affiliated groups. McCready’s campaign has spent nearly $5 million, while Bishop’s is approaching $2 million. Outside GOP-aligned groups have added $6.8 million during the course of the special election, while Democratic groups have spent about $3.5 million, according to federal records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Republicans have taken aim at McCready’s business record, suggesting that he prospered at taxpayers’ expense by lobbying state officials for tax breaks. While the allegations are convoluted, Republicans are hoping their Trumpian tagline, “Dan McGreedy,” sticks.
Democrats, meanwhile, are highlighting Bishop’s legislative record, which includes writing the nationally controversial 2016 bill, later repealed, that would have policed which bathrooms transgender people could use.
Democrats have accused Bishop of doing the bidding of health insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry. McCready has taken particular delight in noting that Bishop cast the sole vote against a bill allowing pharmacists to inform patients of lower-priced alternatives to drugs prescribed by their doctors.
But neither party is quite certain how much those targeted attacks are going to sway voters who seem more concerned about the national political dynamic.
“The single biggest message that we have for Dan is that he’s been endorsed by the president,” said Michael Whatley, the North Carolina Republican Party chairman. “Do you want the person who’s with Pelosi or the person who’s with Trump?”
Republicans are speculating that moderate and conservative voters generally are being driven to vote for Bishop after seeing the leftward lurch of many of the Democratic presidential candidates, whether in supporting a single-payer health-care system or decriminalizing border crossings or offering public benefits to undocumented immigrants.
“They are stunned by that, and they’re a little frightened by it, and so I think that makes the environment different than it was last November,” Bishop said.
Asked about some of the more progressive notions gaining traction in the presidential race, McCready briefly laments the “extremism that’s there on both sides” before turning things back to “bringing people together” and “broken partisan politics.”
When pressed on a divisive issue such as gun control, he sticks closely to his centrist comfort zone. At the retirement home, a resident pressed McCready on whether the general public ought to have access to military-style assault rifles.
The candidate talked about his experience carrying an M16 in the Marine Corps before circling back to his well-calibrated position on guns: universal background checks.
“You didn’t really answer my question,” the woman protested. “No one needs one of those guns.”
“My view is,” McCready said, “we have got to look at what we can actually get done.”
Democratic turnout has outpaced Republican turnout so far, but GOP officials say there are more than enough voters to put Bishop over the top — provided they come to the polls.
That’s where they are hoping Trump can help, by driving up Election Day turnout, particularly in the rural eastern portion of the district where Republicans run strongest. McCready said he is ready to counter any GOP spike with help from a “volunteer army” that is prepared to knock on tens of thousands of doors in the final days of the race.
There is a second House special election to be settled in North Carolina next week, in the coastal 3rd Congressional District, but it is under less of a national microscope, with Republicans confident they will prevail in a district that Trump won by 24 points.
If past pre-election rallies are any guide, Trump will invite Bishop to address the raucous crowd in Fayetteville for a few moments before carrying on with his own remarks.
Bishop said he hasn’t decided what he plans to say, but he knows the broad strokes: “It’s a pretty simple message,” he said. “I want them to know I’m going to support the president, and I want them to know that success requires them to turn out and vote.”