The special congressional election in North Carolina may have involved just about 190,000 voters, but it showed that the class, racial and regional divides among voters have only hardened since that demographic chasm helped drive President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the Democratic rebound in the House in 2018.
Dan Bishop, a Republican state lawmaker, eked out a two-point victory in a historically conservative seat because he improved on his party’s performance with working-class whites in more lightly populated parts of the district. And even though Democrats nominated a Marine veteran, Dan McCready, who highlighted his baptism while serving in Iraq, his gains in Charlotte, the state’s biggest city, were not enough to offset the drop-off he suffered across several hundred miles of sprawling farms and small towns.
The bracing takeaway for Republicans is that their tightening embrace of Trump and his often demagogic politics is further alienating the upper middle-class voters — many in cities and their suburbs— who once were central to their base. At the same time, the Democrats are continuing to struggle with the working-class whites who once represented a pillar of their own coalition.
The results here in a district stretching from Charlotte to Fayetteville presage a brutal, national campaign that seems destined to become the political equivalent of trench warfare, with the two parties rallying their supporters but clashing over a vanishingly small slice of contested electoral terrain.
Such a contest could prove difficult for Trump, because his core support may well be insufficient to win him a second term without improving his standing with the suburbanites and women who reluctantly backed him in 2016.
Even as the president and his top aides crowed over their role in securing Bishop a two-point win in a seat Trump carried by 12 points, their next-day glow was jarred by a new Washington Post-ABC poll that delivered grim tidings. Trump would lose to a handful of the Democratic candidates, the survey indicated, and a trial heat between the president and Joe Biden showed the former vice president thrashing Trump 55-40 among registered voters.
But Republicans note that the election will not be held this week and they believe Trump can pull out another Electoral College victory if the Democrats veer out of the political mainstream next year and send just enough of those political moderates scrambling back to the GOP.
“Their run to the left is the great opportunity for us to get back the majority and for the president to get reelected,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, pointing to how many more House seats are now held by Democrats in districts won by Trump than by Republicans in seats Hillary Clinton carried.
More striking than McHenry’s rosy assessment is what he and other political veterans from both parties are now willing to acknowledge: that new lines of demarcation are making Democrats out of college-educated voters tooling around Charlotte in BMWs and Republicans out of blue-collar workers further out on Tobacco Road. And those lines are now fixed.
“We are living in, to take an old John Edwards term, Two Americas,” McHenry said, alluding to the former North Carolina senator. He added that “the view of the president is cemented in voters’ minds” and conceded that Trump can only improve his standing in the suburbs “along the margins.”
Former Rep. Brad Miller, a longtime North Carolina Democrat with ancestral roots in this district, was just as blunt.
“It does grieve me greatly that the areas where my family was from have gone so Republican,” said Miller, noting that many of the voters who cast Republican ballots Tuesday “probably had grandparents with pictures of FDR up in their living room.”
But Miller said the implications from Tuesday’s special election and last year’s midterms were undeniable if demoralizing in some ways.
“Democrats have a clear advantage in 2020, but there is no way to break into a lot of the folks who are for Trump. They’re just not going to vote for a Democrat, doesn’t matter who it is,” he said. “So Democrats can still win and probably will win but we’re going to be a very divided nation.”
Those divisions were easy to detect Wednesday in Rockingham, a county seat community well east of Charlotte best known for its famed NASCAR track. McCready won the surrounding county by 2.5% last year but on Tuesday Bishop carried it by 5%.
Standing behind the counter at Iconic Wellness CBD, and surrounded by tasteful posters extolling the benefits of legal cannabis products, Pam Mizzell said she voted for Bishop in part because he had the strong backing of Trump.
Mizzell, who is white, said she wanted more Republicans in Washington supporting the president’s agenda. She accused former President Barack Obama of pitting “one race against the other race” (she did not cite any examples) and said she hoped that the Trump administration would help bring about an era of racial healing.
Diane McDonald, a school cafeteria worker who is African-American, offered a markedly different viewpoint, saying she was worried that Trump is promoting racism. “And they’re letting him get away with it,” McDonald said of Washington Republicans. “I thought McCready would make a difference.”
In Charlotte, it was not difficult to find white, Republican-leaning voters who also backed McCready.
Chris Daleus, a salesman, said he backed the Democrat Tuesday even though he supported Trump three years ago. “He seems to have embarrassed us in a lot of ways,” Daleus said of the president.
National Democrats took heart in such sentiments, believing their narrow defeat in a district they have not held since the 1960s foreshadows how a Trumpified Republican Party will run into the same suburban wall in 2020 as they did last year.
“There are 34 seats held by Republicans that are better pickup opportunities for Democrats than this seat,” said Lucinda Guinn, a Democratic strategist. “Democrats can grow their majority.”
The more pressing matter for Democrats, though, may be whether they can improve their performance with working-class whites to reclaim the Senate and presidency in 2020, a question that will turn in part on whether they can defeat the North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and reclaim this state from Trump, who won here by 3.6 points in 2016.
“Back in the 80s and 90s, North Carolina Democrats who bucked party affiliation were called Jessecrats,” said Doug Heye, a North Carolina-reared Republican consultant, referring to the late Sen. Jesse Helms. “Now we may have to called them Trumpocrats. And if Democrats want North Carolina to truly be in play, they have to figure out how to appeal to these voters.”
Bishop’s campaign correctly determined that these mostly rural Democrats would hold the key to their success, even though their candidate’s state senate district includes parts of Charlotte. Jim Blaine, one of Bishop’s top aides, said that 75% to 80% of their paid advertising was directed toward the eastern, and more sparsely-populated, part of the district.
“It was focused on the core, long-standing, working-class Democratic constituency that makes up a huge piece of the population in those counties,” said Blaine, adding: “We had to persuade them not that Dan Bishop is the Republican, but the guy who would look out for them.”
He said their job was made easier in part because of the national Democratic Party’s drift left, but also because McCready did not make any major break from party orthodoxy that would have allowed him to present himself as a different sort of Democrat.
Trump’s high command, not surprisingly, had their own theory of why Republicans won here: Trump.
Brad Parscale, the president’s campaign manager, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that the president’s election eve rally in Fayetteville was pivotal to Bishop’s success in energizing Election Day voters, after the Democrats mobilized many of their supporters to cast early ballots.
“There’s no question that he is the congressman-elect this morning because of the personal efforts of President Trump,” Parscale said of Bishop.
But in between the credit-claiming, one of Trump’s top political advisers, Bill Stepien, offered a bit of bravado that doubled as the bet on which the president is apparently staking his reelection.
“I think too often people in this city, in the Beltway, rely on old math and old math equations for how this president changed the way politics is done,” said Stepien, adding: “There’s a new math spurred by a new candidate at the top of the ticket and I think we need to throw out the old way” of how “elections are won and lost.”
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