Tuesday’s special election in North Carolina was cast by pundits and analysts cast as a test of President Trump’s standing among voters and a glimpse into the 2020 elections. A win by Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop won would be positive for the president and his party who lost traction in the suburbs in 2018. While a victory for Democratic businessman Dan McCready in a district which had voted Republican since 1963 would be seen as a signal of emerging Democratic strengths in the suburbs.
At the end of election day, it turned out the cliché – it’s all about turnout – carried the day. With two of the final polls split between McCready leading and Bishop holding a slight advantage in the other, control of the 9th congressional district was up for grabs. Having won the district by 12 points in 2016, President Trump and Vice President Pence decided a high profile appearance could make a difference in the closing hours. It did and the Republican Bishop managed to secure a 2-point victory.
Throughout the campaign, McCready, a former Marine, remained a disciplined messenger by hitting on kitchen-table issues designed to exploit the fact that Trump’s approval had fallen from 52 percent approval in 2018 to 47 percent in the most recent Inside Elections poll, particularly among suburban voters.
But on the issue of immigration, McCready had been indecisive. During a radio appearance in which he was asked about Republican Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to veto legislation requiring to local law enforcement to honor detainer requests from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), McCready tried to deflect the question.
He asserted that Bishop was playing “partisan, political games,” but eventually backed the decision, saying, “This bill was vetoed, which was the right call.”
To no one’s surprise, President Trump seized on the comment with a tweet saying Bishop’s “opponent believes in Open Borders and Sanctuary Cities,” a charge he went back to in his Monday rally.
McCready spokesman Matt Fried weakly insisted in an email to PolitFact that his boss “doesn’t support a ‘sanctuary city.’ Violent criminals belong in jail in every city.”
Asked for his views on “limiting legal immigration,” McCready seemed confused by the question and then offered a similarly confusing response.
“It’s hard to focus on this actually one point here,” he said, adding that “there needs to be a pathway based on family,” but there “should also be a pathway based on skills and professional skills.”
The Democrat had tried to stay far away from details on immigration and even father away from his party’s leaders, so Trump came in with the counterpunch. In his Monday rally, Trump thumped Democrats and McCready.
Casting the vote as one between a candidate who’d been running ads targeting sanctuary sheriffs in the state, and one who, Trump charged, supported “sanctuary city policies that force prisons and jails to release criminal aliens directly into your neighborhoods.”
The indictment resonated with the audience more strongly in light of a new report disclosing that almost 500 illegal immigrants were released from North Carolina jails in the last 10 months because local sheriffs declined to cooperate with ICE detainer requests.
Among the crimes allegedly committed by the illegal aliens were sex offenses, kidnapping, arson and homicide.
And just days ago, another foreign national was arrested in the Charlotte, N.C. area as part of a multi-state ICE operation targeting suspected human rights violators and war criminals.
Did Trump push Bishop over the finish line as he claimed? Or did Bishop eke out a victory because fewer Democrats came out to vote in key counties? It probably was a mix of both. It is likely, however, that North Carolina will continue to showcase key battles between Republicans and Democrats in 2020 and immigration will be at the center of those fights.