Why North Carolina candidates aren’t talking about the ‘bathroom bill’

Modern campaigning allows candidates to tailor messages to different platforms

Democrat Dan McCready, who narrowly lost last year’s election in North Carolina's 9th District only to have the results thrown out amid fraud allegations, held a narrow lead over Republican Dan Bishop in an Inside Elections poll less than two weeks before the redo election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrat Dan McCready, who narrowly lost last year’s election in North Carolina's 9th District only to have the results thrown out amid fraud allegations, held a narrow lead over Republican Dan Bishop in an Inside Elections poll less than two weeks before the redo election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 15, 2019 at 5:00am

ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C. — Asked about immigration at a town hall last weekend, Dan McCready talked about securing the border and respecting the law.

He didn’t sound like “an Elizabeth Warren Democrat,” which is how the National Republican Congressional Committee is trying to tar him

The Democratic nominee in the redo election in North Carolina’s 9th District is running against Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop, the sponsor of the state’s controversial “bathroom bill.”

But don’t expect McCready to mention that law in his ads, or to embrace his party’s most progressive presidential candidates. He told a town hall in Pembroke that his party’s 2020 contenders were discussing “crazy stuff” about health care that the country doesn’t need.

Yet days earlier, a McCready campaign fundraising email featured Warren calling him a “fighter” and touting his rejection of corporate PAC money.

Those parallel messages — condemning the presidential candidates while embracing Warren’s solicitation power — demonstrate how modern campaigns segment their communications strategies depending on their audience and their goals.

It can be an awkward but effective dance that politicians from both parties do. Throughout 2018, for example, down-ballot Republicans often shifted their message about President Donald Trump depending on whether they were talking to conservative donors, activists or suburban swing voters.

What bathroom bill?

The 9th District special election is happening because last year’s contest, which McCready lost by less than 1,000 votes, was thrown out after the state election board decided there was absentee ballot fraud involving a consultant to Republican nominee Mark Harris.

When Bishop won a 10-way GOP primary earlier this year, Democrats and the media often used his association with the bathroom bill to identify him.

But with less than a month until the Sept. 10 special election, neither McCready nor Bishop talks much about House Bill 2.

The state law, which passed in 2016, held that people could only use bathrooms in government-run facilities that corresponded to the sex on their birth certificates. The uproar over transgender rights that followed included calls for business boycotts of North Carolina, and the NCAA announced it was moving all of its championship tournaments, including basketball’s March Madness, out of the state. In 2017, The Associated Press projected that the law would cost the state $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years.

Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling stopped doing surveys on the bathroom bill after it was repealed in 2017. But in its last poll, from early that year, the firm found 32 percent of state voters supported the law, while 50 percent opposed it.

Bishop doesn’t mention HB2.

“It’s never been a big part of who I am as a public official,” he told CQ Roll Call on Saturday. When he was up for reelection back in 2016, however, he fundraised off the opposition to the bill.

“They want to make us into a national example — SO THAT NO ONE WILL EVER STAND UP to the radical transgender agenda again,” read one of his emails. 

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 10: Dan Bishop, Republican candidate for North Carolina's 9th District, hops off a truck while canvassing a neighborhood in Parkton, N.C., on Saturday, August 10, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
State Sen. Dan Bishop jumps out of a pickup truck on his way to knock on doors in Parkton, N.C., last weekend. The Republican nominee in the 9th District says he hears more about immigration on the campaign trail than the 2016 ‘bathroom bill.’ (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

On Saturday, Bishop called the issue “a needless controversy” that people were tired of. 

“It’s something that the media is fascinated by. And I, on occasion, hear people comment on it as an indicator of my having fight in me, which some people like to see,” he said.

He said he hears much more about immigration these days — which is reflected in his ads. His most recent spot calls out a “liberal sheriff” for “playing politics with illegal immigration” and suggests McCready “won’t stand up to radicals in his party.”

McCready hasn’t made the bathroom bill a focus of his campaign either, even if it is unpopular statewide and with some Charlotte-area Republicans he may want to woo. 

During a weekend of town halls in the eastern part of the district, McCready brought up the bathroom bill just once, telling voters in Bladen County that it was Bishop’s “signature legislative achievement” and that it hurt the state’s economy and reputation.

Democrats see the bathroom bill as part of a broader indictment of Bishop’s legislative career.

“People see what Dan Bishop did with bathrooms and see that it’s exactly the opposite of the kind of leadership that we need for our state,” McCready told CQ Roll Call on Saturday.

But for the McCready campaign, health care is a much more salient message to both motivate the base and attract independent voters.

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Fundraising is a different story

In fundraising pitches, however, the Democrat’s campaign used the bathroom bill early on, and sporadically since then, to solicit money. And it continues to tie Bishop to racial extremists. 

The day after Bishop won his May 14 primary, McCready’s team sent out a fundraising email describing “Dan Bishop’s history of hate.” A month later, McCready’s campaign sent another email: “The people deserve answers. Does he regret pushing the discriminatory legislation that cost North Carolina billions of dollars, or does he still support the bill?”

At the end of June, the campaign sent an email from veteran Democratic consultant James Carville that described Bishop as a “far-right extremist best known as the architect of the North Carolina’s bathroom bill.” On July 9, a McCready fundraising email circulated a HuffPost headline that read, “Republican Compared Anti-LGBTQ Proposal To Saving Jews From Holocaust.”

After two mass shootings in early August, McCready’s team sent a fundraising email that tried to tie Bishop to white nationalism.

“Dan Bishop has built his career by promoting hatred and bigotry,” the Aug. 13 email read.

McCready has far outraised Bishop. He raked in $325,000 in donations under $200 during the second quarter of the year — about 24 percent of his overall quarterly haul. About 9 percent of Bishop’s fundraising total came from similar small-dollar donations. 

Staying on message

McCready needs to turn out all base Democratic voters to have any shot of winning in a district Trump carried by 11 points in 2016. But running in such a Republican district also means he cannot afford to alienate voters who might not be as liberal. That’s why the messages he’s sending in his fundraising emails — about racism and extremism — aren’t a bigger part of his paid communications.

His campaign views health care as a unifying message since it’s an issue that affects all voters, regardless of age, gender or socioeconomic status. Democratic TV ads have been hitting Bishop for being the only senator to vote against legislation that allows pharmacists to discuss lower-cost alternative drugs with their patients. (Bishop has argued he didn’t vote for it because he didn’t have time to read the updated version of the two-page bill.)

That message, layered with attempts to tie Bishop to “special interests,” has superseded any arguments against Bishop for being discriminatory.

Democrats made a similar calculation in Minnesota in 2018, when they avoided talking about offensive remarks made by GOP House candidates in two of the most competitive races in the country. Instead, Democrats focused on the economic issues they believed would help them win.

So far, most outside groups playing in the race for McCready have largely stuck to a health care or prescription drug cost message too.

But two groups, Stand Up Republic and American Values PAC, which are spending about $500,000 on TV and digital ads, have strayed from that focus. The groups, founded by 2016 independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, try to tie Bishop to last fall’s ballot fraud scandal and accuse Bishop of “siding with neo-Nazis” because he invested in an online platform used by extremists.