NORTH CAROLINA — 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."
Bishop had a strong election day performance throughout the district, particularly in Cumberland County where the rally was held.
The biggest fall for McCready was in Robeson County where Democrats make up 60% of the voters.
Bishop came within 300 votes of winning Robeson County.
He did extremely well in the Lumbee tribe precincts.
Bishop's campaign strategist told Channel 9’s government reporter Joe Bruno that Bishop invested heavy resources into Robeson County.
Earlier this year, Bishop was the sponsor of a bill that passed unanimously, which opened more grant opportunities for the Lumbee tribe.
“That was a key part of our race,” Bishop’s chief strategist Jim Blaine said. “A group of voters we targeted and wanted to persuade that Dan shared their values and his record in the legislature proved that to them.”
In his speech Tuesday night, Bishop thanked his family and his supporters, saying he wants to get right to work.
His goals mirror the Trump agenda -- with a strong emphasis on the second amendment and tough immigration policy. He blasted sanctuary cities, specifically calling out the Mecklenburg County sheriff for eliminating 287(g) that cooperated with ICE.
He said he wants to work with Trump to keep putting America first, touting a strong economy.
"The vision that President Trump is associated with is for the success of America and it's hard to be against that and I'm gonna support him," Bishop said. "I've never seen a president face more opposition. He needs help and I am going to help him."
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.
When Channel 9 talked with McCready Tuesday, he said he and his family were ready for the race to be over after a long 10 months. He said he called Bishop to offer any support he can as he heads to D.C.
"Our refrain in this campaign was country over party and I believe that when our country succeeds, we all succeed and for me that means offering my help to Dan Bishop when he takes over his new job representing us. I wish him the best," McCready said.
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.
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 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.
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 on 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 another 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, and 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 outspoken liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
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 health care 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 then-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 but one was born in the U.S. The crowd began chanting "Send her back."
There was a motion to extend voting 25 minutes at precinct 220 in Mecklenburg County where a gas leak interrupted voting.
Voting was extended to 7:55 p.m. Ballots cast after 7:30 p.m. will be provisional ballots.
This will delay reporting of results of all contests until 7:55 p.m. at the earliest.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections is holding another emergency meeting. This time at 7:15 p.m. to consider extending voting hours in Precinct 220 in Mecklenburg County.
There was a gas leak at about 5 p.m. at the precinct. For about 30 minutes, precinct workers directed voters to an adjacent precinct to cast provisional ballots. 19 people cast provisional ballots.
The polling station is at the Mint Hill Masonic Lodge #742, 10224 Lawyers Road in Mint Hill.
Earlier, the state Republican party has asked that precinct 30 in Monroe stay open one hour and 45 minutes longer though. Union County moved the precinct to a different church and notified voters, but Republicans said it created voter confusion.
The board members, however, did not make a motion at an emergency meeting to extend voting hours for that precinct. Polls will still close for precinct 30 at 7:30 p.m.
Monday night, both candidates focused their efforts in Fayetteville. Bishop brought in high profile support from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Bishop's pitch is that he will be a reliable vote for the president in D.C. He promises to be a strong supporter of the second amendment and tough on immigration.
"Mr. President, we are not tired of winning," Bishop said.
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"A vote for any democrat in 2020, or a vote for any democrat tomorrow is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and a vote for the destruction of the American dream," Trump said.
Veterans and military families joined McCready for his boots on the ground approach, knocking on doors and courting potential voters.
"People are tired of career politicians, and they are ready for leaders who will put country first," McCready said.
The special election is 10 months in the making.
The original election was last Nov. 7, between McCready and Mark Harris. Shortly after, McCready conceded.
In December, Channel 9 uncovered evidence of ballot harvesting in Bladen County. We looked into the past of Bladen County electioneer, McCrae Dowless Jr.
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After a series of hearings, on Feb. 21, the State Board of Elections called for a new election.
In March, Dowless and six others were charged in the ballot harvesting scheme.
On May 14, state Sen. Dan Bishop won the Republican primary.
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