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Will the ‘bathroom bill’ animate yet another North Carolina election?

Dan Bishop may be on track to avoid a runoff in 9th District GOP primary

Democrats are sending out fundraising solicitations for contributions to be split between themselves and North Carolina Democrat Dan McCready.  (Jeff Siner/The Charlotte Observer via AP)
Democrats are sending out fundraising solicitations for contributions to be split between themselves and North Carolina Democrat Dan McCready.  (Jeff Siner/The Charlotte Observer via AP)

The email from Dan McCready was telling.

The North Carolina Democrat, who’s amassed more than $2.6 million for a redo election in the 9th District, was fundraising off a poll that showed state Sen. Dan Bishop leading the 10-person Republican field for next Tuesday’s primary. 

Bishop wasn’t just leading, the Public Policy Polling survey found; he was narrowly clearing 30 percent, which is the threshold needed to avoid a runoff. McCready wanted to let his supporters know that Bishop was “the architect of HB2,” a state law that required people to use the bathrooms in government-run facilities that corresponded to the sex on their birth certificates.  

The so-called bathroom bill could be a double-edged sword for Bishop, whose own polling shows him leading the GOP primary for the 9th District seat that’s remained open since an absentee ballot harvesting scheme in last year’s election brought down the apparent winner, Republican Mark Harris.

In a crowded GOP primary, where some conservative activists think Harris was mistreated, sponsoring the bathroom bill is likely a positive for Bishop. But in what’s likely to be a nationalized general election, a nominee with that legacy will likely be a fundraising boon for Democrats.

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How’d we get here?

The special election in the 9th District, which stretches along the South Carolina border and includes affluent neighborhoods of Charlotte and its suburbs, is likely to be the most high-profile House contest of the year. 

President Donald Trump carried the district by about 12 points in 2016, but Democrats targeted the seat in 2018, and came close to winning. Harris, a retired pastor who’d knocked off Republican incumbent Robert Pittenger in a primary, led McCready, a solar energy financier and Marine veteran, by just 905 votes after the November election.

But in the face of election fraud allegations tied to Harris’ campaign, the North Carolina State Board of Elections refused to certify the result. After a week of dramatic public hearings in February, Harris and the state board both called for a new election

Harris declined to run again in the special election — citing health reasons, not the election fraud. Pittenger and former Gov. Pat McCrory also passed on the contest. 

In the absence of a big name who could clear the field, more and more Republicans jumped into the race. McCready, meanwhile, has had the Democratic field to himself and has been raising money nonstop since last fall’s election

Republicans admit that McCready is a strong candidate — even throwing around comparisons to Pennsylvania freshman Conor Lamb, another Marine veteran who flipped a Republican seat in a special election in early 2018. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 9th District special election a Toss-up.

Republicans know they need to hold this seat — not just so that their numbers in the House don’t dip but also to send a message about where they stand in the Tar Heel State. The absentee ballot scandal put a cloud over the party, as did the recent indictment of the state GOP chairman in a corruption probe.

In a nationalized political environment, the 9th District outcome will also likely contribute to the narrative about North Carolina heading into 2020, when GOP Sen. Thom Tillis will be up for his first re-election. The demographically shifting state is also a must-win for Trump, who won it by less than 4 points in 2016.

The GOP primary

If there was grumbling from some Charlotte Republican donors about Bishop’s bathroom bill legacy and the damage it did to North Carolina’s economy, it hasn’t affected the candidate’s ability to communicate with voters.

He’s the only GOP hopeful who’s been on TV, although others have had outside groups communicating on their behalf. Real estate agent Leigh Brown has support from the National Association of Realtors PAC, which has spent $1.3 million on her behalf. 

Bishop has attacked Brown for not living in the 9th District and for the help she’s received from the Realtors’ group. But Bishop also has outside support. Club for Growth PAC endorsed him and has been attacking two of his opponents. 

Bishop’s own polling from late April showed him picking up 36 percent among likely GOP voters. That’s in line with the PPP poll results, conducted about a week later, which found him at 31 percent. PPP surveyed 592 likely voters from April 29-30, and the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.1 points.  

If no candidate clears 30 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff on Sept. 10. The general election will take place on that date if someone does get 30 percent or more next week.

Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing, who has Harris’ backing, was in second place in the PPP poll at 17 percent. Former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who has Pittenger’s support, earned 9 percent, followed by Brown at 6 percent. 

Republicans watching the race argue that a crowded primary like this one is notoriously hard to poll, especially by a Democratic firm. But there’s little argument that Bishop is the front-runner. He has the support of a wide range of Republicans, from establishment donors to 11th District Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, who recently cut him a $2,000 check. 

Having run for re-election recently, Bishop had a campaign infrastructure up and ready to go sooner than his competition. 

He’d raised about $541,000 as of his last filing to the FEC, although $250,000 of that came from a personal loan. Brown raised about $274,000 as of her last filing. She loaned her campaign $1,000. Ridenhour had raised about $82,000, and Rushing about $72,000. 

The HB2 fight 

Republicans who have backed Bishop argue that his name recognition and local endorsements give them the best chance of holding the seat in the general election.

Bishop’s state Senate district almost completely overlaps with the part of Mecklenburg County that is in the 9th District, according to Bishop’s campaign. 

But some Republicans are worried that having the face of the bathroom bill as the GOP nominee may require them to spend even more money to hold a seat that used to be safely theirs.

“This is the type of issue and race that can really animate large and small dollars all across the country,” a Republican operative close to the Brown campaign said.

The North Carolina-based PPP stopped polling the bathroom bill after it was repealed in 2017. But in its most recent survey on the issue, from early 2017, 32 percent of state voters supported HB2, while 50 percent opposed it. Several months later, an Associated Press analysis projected that the law would cost the state $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper made it an issue in his winning 2016 campaign. 

Bishop’s website speaks about his fight for “conservative Christian values” and for a constitutional amendment requiring voter identification that passed last fall. (A judge has since ruled it invalid.) It does not mention HB2.

“There’s a lot of fatigue over the issue,” Bishop consultant Jim Blaine said. “People just don’t want to hear about it.”

His campaign admits that the issue probably hasn’t hurt him with base votes, who skew socially conservative. And in general elections for his recent state Senate races, Democratic challengers have tried — and failed — to make it a winning issue. 

Bishop’s campaign knows McCready will use HB2 to fundraise — he already has. But they don’t think that will translate to a victory.

“He’s raising money from a really, really liberal, left-wing group of people nationally,” Blaine said. “But if he were to run a campaign that resonated with the issues of his donors, he would get thrashed here in North Carolina.”

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