RALEIGH, N.C. – 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 Donald 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 last 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 more 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 Trump 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 19 seats, which a slew of GOP retirements, anti-Trump sentiment among moderate voters and demographic changes suggest will be difficult.
“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 Second Amendment and he's against illegal immigration,” said Susie Sisk, 73, another retiree from Mint Hill. The registered Democrat said she voted for Bishop.