Three Takeaways from the North Carolina 9th District Special Election
On Tuesday, voters in North Carolina’s 9th District elected Republican Dan Bishop as their Congressman over Democrat Dan McCready by a slim margin of 50.74% to 48.66%. Here are three key takeaways from the race:
- The National Environment is Still Pretty Blue
Republicans will be happy they won the seat, but the fact that this race was even close is a bad omen for them heading into 2020. NC-09 voted for Trump by 11.60 points in the 2016 presidential election, making it 13.70 points more Republican than the nation as a whole (since Clinton won the popular vote by 2.10 points). If every Congressional district shifted to the left the same amount that NC-09 did between 2016 and 2019, Democrats would win the popular vote by 11.62 points in 2020.
We should be careful about extrapolating too much from one special election, but history suggests that an average of special election results can give us clues about the national environment heading into the following cycle. Indeed, the Daily Kos Special Elections tracker shows that Democrats are outperforming Clinton’s margins by an average of 5.5 points across 39 federal and state legislative special elections since November 2018.
2. Republicans Did Well in Rural Areas
Bishop expanded on Harris’ small margin in the 2018 election primarily because of his relative strength in rural counties. While McCready outperformed his 2018 margin in suburban Mecklenburg County and roughly matched his 2018 margin in exurban Union County, he underperformed in the other more rural counties stretching to the Southeast.
Robeson County stands out — McCready’s 15.31 point margin from 2018 collapsed to a narrow 1.10 point victory. In fact, the difference between McCready’s raw vote margin in 2018 (+4728) and his raw vote margin in 2019 (+231) covered the spread of the district-wide raw vote margin of Bishop +3937 votes. If McCready had done as well in Robeson County as he did in 2018 and everything else was the same, he would have won.
Robeson is a rural Obama-Trump county that flipped from Obama+17 to Trump +4. It’s also a very diverse county — 41.7% Native American, 23.8% Black, and 25.0% Non-Hispanic White according to Census estimates.
McCready’s dropoff in the rural counties suggests that Democrats may be struggling to win back working-class Obama-Trump voters, but one thing to keep in mind is that McCready still beat Clinton’s margin in every single one of the counties in NC-09.
3. Democrats Have Room to Gain in Well-Educated Suburbs in the South
The flipside is that McCready actually expanded on his 2018 margin in Mecklenburg County by 2.88 points. The part of Mecklenburg County in NC-09 is mostly the wealthy suburbs south of the city of Charlotte. This area has many Romney-Clinton voters, as shown by the 2012–2016 presidential swing margin map by Ryne Rohla. The dark blue triangle in the middle of screen represents much of the Mecklenburg portion of NC-09.
Places like Mecklenburg County are where Democrats won their 2018 House majority. Suburban Mecklenburg is similar to highly educated districts like GA-06, TX-07, CA-49, and KS-03 that voted heavily Republican in the past before shifting strongly to the left in the 2016 presidential election. In the 2018 midterm elections, these voters who abandoned the Republicans stuck with the Democrats, flipping many suburban seats across the nation.
What’s notable here in the NC-09 special election is that after shifting towards the Democrats from 2012->2016, Mecklenburg shifted even further to the left from 2016->2019. While Trump won the Mecklenburg part of NC-09 by 3 points in 2016, McCready won it by 10 points in 2018 and 12 points in 2019. Mecklenburg represented the largest shift from 2016->2019 (15.67 points!) of all the counties in NC-09.
What does this mean? It means that there’s still potential for Democrats to make gains in areas with college-educated white voters, particularly in the South — 2016 did not represent rock bottom for Republicans among these voters.
These results mirror results from the 2018 Texas Senate race, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke made large gains in suburban Texas counties like Tarrant, Collin, Denton, Hays, and Williamson. This is one reason why Texas will be likely be competitive in the future — Republicans have maxed out in the rural areas while Democrats still have room to grow in the urban/suburban areas.