GOP holds North Carolina congressional seat, easing fears of Democratic momentum

President Trump with Dan Bishop
President Trump with Dan Bishop at a rally in Fayetteville, N.C., on Monday. Bishop was elected to the House in special election Tuesday.
(Chris Seward / Associated Press)

Conservative Republican Dan Bishop won a special election Tuesday for an open House seat in North Carolina, averting a Democratic capture of a GOP-leaning district. But his narrow victory did not erase questions about whether President Trump and his party’s congressional candidates face troubling headwinds approaching 2020.

Bishop, 55, a state senator best known for a North Carolina law dictating which public bathrooms transgender people can use, defeated centrist Democrat Dan McCready. Bishop was the beneficiary of an election-eve rally in the district headlined by Trump, who told the crowd a victory would be “the first steps to firing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and winning back the House in 2020.”

McCready, 36, a former Marine turned financier of solar energy projects, was banking on the district’s suburban moderates to carry him over the top. He was already a familiar name in the district: He narrowly trailed in an election for the seat in November that was later invalidated after evidence surfaced of vote-tampering.


Tuesday’s election had been seen as too close to call, in itself an ominous sign for Republicans. Trump won the district by 11 percentage points in 2016, and a loss would have been a worrisome preface to the party’s campaigns next year. Republicans have held the seat since 1963.

Special elections generally attract such low turnout that their results aren’t predictive of future general elections. Even so, a McCready victory, or even a narrow defeat, would have signaled that the Democrats’ 2018 string of victories in suburban districts in red states including Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas could persist.

There is almost no pathway to Republicans regaining House control next year unless they avoid losing suburban districts and win back some they lost last year.

The district stretches from Charlotte, one of the nation’s financial nerve centers, through its flourishing eastern suburbs and into less prosperous rural counties along the South Carolina line. More than half its voters were expected to come from the suburbs.

Since Trump became president, voters in such communities — particularly women and college-educated voters — have abandoned him in droves over his conservative social policies and vitriolic rhetoric on immigration and race.

Along with a GOP victory in a second vacant House district in North Carolina, Republicans pared the Democratic majority in the House to 235-199, plus one independent. That means to win control of the chamber in 2020, Republicans will need to gain 18 seats, which a slew of GOP retirements, anti-Trump sentiment among moderate voters and demographic changes suggest will be difficult.

Suburban defections would also jeopardize the reelection prospects of Trump, who’s already facing slipping poll numbers. Limiting the erosion of those voters will be crucial for him to retain swing states like North Carolina, which he won by less than 4 percentage points in 2016.

“I am a registered Republican, but I am fed up with the agenda of the Republican Party,” said Bob Southern, 75, of Mint Hill, a Charlotte suburb. “I am so disappointed in this president, and he frightens me very much.”

Southern said he voted for McCready.

Bishop was counting on the district’s Republican-leaning tendencies.

“Bishop, his policies follow my convictions. After hearing Bishop, knowing that he’s for the 2nd Amendment and he’s against illegal immigration,” said Susie Sisk, 73, another retiree from Mint Hill. The registered Democrat said she voted for Bishop.

A McCready win would also have let Democrats brag that they controlled a congressional district that covers a piece of Charlotte, where next summer’s Republican National Convention will be held to renominate Trump.

Underscoring the GOP’s all-out effort to avoid a demoralizing defeat, Vice President Mike Pence also campaigned in the district Monday. And while McCready outspent Bishop by nearly $3 million, top outside GOP groups poured in $6.4 million, outpacing Democrats’ $2.9 million and nearly evening out the expenditures.

In the other special election, Republican Greg Murphy, a doctor and state legislator, as expected defeated Democrat Allen Thomas to keep a House district along North Carolina’s Atlantic Coast.

That seat has been vacant since February, when 13-term GOP Rep. Walter Jones died. Trump won it handily in 2016.

The bathroom law that Bishop sponsored was repealed after it prompted a national outcry and boycotts that the Associated Press estimated cost North Carolina $3.7 billion.

Bishop bound himself tightly to Trump, backing his proposed border wall with Mexico and accusing Trump critics of being intent on “destroying him.” In a TV spot airing election day, he said his opponent is “backed by radicals,” as the screen flashed the faces of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

McCready used his creation of a company that’s financed solar energy projects to cast himself as a job creator and environmental champion. He also focused on containing healthcare costs and ran a spot featuring his trademark promise to prioritize “country over party.”

The district received a black eye this year when state officials voided its 2018 election, which McCready lost by 900 votes to GOP candidate Mark Harris. That decision followed allegations of ballot tampering by a Republican political consultant, and Harris opted to not run again.

Another jolt of notoriety occurred in July when Trump staged a rally for Bishop in nearby Greenville. Trump said four Democratic women of color should “go back” to their home countries, though all are U.S. citizens and three were born in the U.S. The crowd began chanting, “Send her back.”