Special: What does North Carolina’s special election mean for 2020?

Sep. 13, 2019 AT 9:46 p.m. EDT

The panelists discussed the GOP's narrow special election victory in a historically red House district in North Carolina this week, looking at what the race reveals about the 2020 map and what it means for President Donald Trump.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Republicans win a narrow victory in North Carolina. What does it say about the 2020 map and what does it mean for President Trump? This is the Washington Week Extra.

Good evening. I’m Robert Costa. North Carolina’s Ninth District was long solid-red territory. Republican State Senator Dan Bishop faced Democrat Dan McCready for a special election on Tuesday. President Trump and Vice President Pence made a last-minute trip to campaign for the House seat.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) A vote for any Democrat tomorrow in North Carolina is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream.

MR. COSTA: After millions of dollars and that visit from the president, Bishop beat McCready by just two percentage points. President Trump was quick to congratulate him.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I want to congratulate Dan Bishop last night on an incredible win. Dan was 17 points behind three weeks ago. The media thought he was going to lose. They were all set to have a big celebration with their partners from the Democrat Party. And Dan Bishop worked really hard, and I worked very hard with him.

MR. COSTA: Polls show the race was even tighter than the president said, even as close as a tie. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had this to say.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I’m very proud of Dan McCready. He’s a great patriot. He’s an independent voice for the district that he would have represented. It’s too bad he’s not coming here, but he did a great job. So he won the campaign – he didn’t win the election, but he won the campaign.

MR. COSTA: What happened in North Carolina this week reflects what is happening across the nation: cities and suburbs are trending blue as rural areas become more red.

Joining me tonight, Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO and co-author of Playbook; Anne Gearan, White House and foreign affairs reporter for The Washington Post; Juana Summers, national political reporter for the Associated Press; and Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

Jake, you’re just back from North Carolina. What’s your takeaway politically by this narrow Republican win?

JAKE SHERMAN: Dan McCready, a really good candidate, Democrat, represented the district well, seemed to make inroads there, but frankly he was up by 12. The president had it close to right. The president did help here. He brought people out in these rural counties, these rural parts of the district where McCready had made inroads before. He’s a veteran. He served in Iraq. He went to Harvard and to Duke. He’s a smart guy. Listen, the suburbs – he didn’t run up his numbers enough in these Charlotte suburbs. And just to paint a picture, I mean, these are the kind of suburbs where there’s Mercedes on the streets, really leafy, big mansions in this little corner of Charlotte where Republicans had won – I mean, Sue Myrick held this district for many years and won with 70 percent of the vote, a Republican who represented the district for many years. And you know, people were drinking wine and I was overhearing conversations about Yale Law School at the Democrats’ election night party. It was a very – and then you go to the rural edges of the district and Donald Trump was just like – he was like the second coming there. I mean, he was somebody who was just revered. And to beat a Republican in a district like that you need to drive up your totals in those suburbs by even more than what McCready did, and for the long term Republicans are going to have a tough time building a sustainable majority in Washington without these districts that combine both suburbs and exurbs. And last point here, these districts were drawn for Republicans.

CARL HULSE: In a very gerrymandered way.

MR. SHERMAN: In a very gerrymandered way. I mean, you couldn’t dream a district better than this for Republicans.

MR. COSTA: What do you mean by that, the gerrymandered?

MR. HULSE: Well, I mean, they really worked down there, the legislature, Republican, very aggressive gerrymandering. So they have set this up to protect those. And you know, the Republican celebration, I’d be careful about that if I’m them, you know. This was a race that should have never been like this. The suburbs are really trending away from them, and gun control – which we’re talking about in Washington – you know, suburban women, this is where Republicans are losing their support. And in the other special election that was held in North Carolina that day, the Republican won but in the primary he had knocked out a woman that there was a lot of Washington women’s organizations, Republican, trying to get her past the primary because Republicans need to get some women running in these races. They can’t get through the primaries. I don’t think this was a great moment for the Republicans, but they get to celebrate and, you know, the Democrats would have done the same thing. But this does not – I think Jake’s exactly right: long term, not good.

MR. COSTA: Were there nerves inside of the White House, Anne?

ANNE GEARAN: There were, and you saw the effect of that, both the president and the vice president making rescue runs down there. I mean, the president is right to – can rightly take some credit here. He definitely brought attention to this race. I mean, we were all paying attention to it because it was, you know, the – like, the only show in – political show in town for that week. But still, it – the president did draw attention to it. This is a state that – remember, like, they have been having this same election for two years – (laughter) – so people are a little tired of it and maybe might not – could be forgiven for maybe not being super excited about going out to vote on Tuesday, and they also just came through a hurricane. So the president and the vice president both, but more the president, were able to really focus the state’s attention and get those rural voters to come out. I mean, there are fewer of them by number, you know, in the district, and yet they turned out at – to Jake’s point, they turned out at a higher rate.

MR. COSTA: Juana, when you talk to Democratic campaign strategists on the 2020 campaign trail and they look at the South and they see this race in North Carolina, they see gains Democrats made in Georgia, you have a Democratic senator in Doug Jones in Alabama, is the South in play, in their view?

JUANA SUMMERS: I think for many of them they absolutely think it can be. I think one of the big lessons that Democratic strategists are taking away from what happened in North Carolina is the fact that while this is a president, to Anne’s point, that can draw out these Republicans, these right-leaning rural voters, and inspire them to fight for him, he’s just as able to inspire left-leaning and independent voters to fight against him. And this is a race that, as everyone said, it shouldn’t have been close. This is a district I believe Trump carried by double digits in – during 2016.

MR. SHERMAN: Dozen points, yep.

MS. SUMMERS: Dozen points. So this should not have been close, and yet it was a very, very tight race. So I think things like this, they give Democrats a lot of hope.

MR. COSTA: Do we expect to see President Trump playing in a lot of House races next year, or is this an anomaly?

MR. SHERMAN: I think this is not going to happen in a presidential year. I mean, the – I can’t imagine; he did not campaign in hardly any districts for House members in 2018 when they lost the House and lost 40 seats in a pretty big wave. I think, listen, the House Republicans right now are made up with really right-leaning districts, culturally conservative districts, rural districts, almost no suburban districts left. California is what they need to win back, and Donald Trump is not terribly popular in California. I think Donald Trump’s going to have to focus on his own election, not worry –

MR. HULSE: And the Senate. The Senate is the firewall for him.


MS. GEARAN: Yeah, no, he’ll – he’s going to do a lot of campaigning, but it’ll be for the Senate and a few governor’s races, but heavily – he’ll campaign heavily for the Senate, I mean, because that works for him too.


MR. COSTA: And is his playbook for Senate races what we’re going to expect to see, the White House, the president stoking the turnout in rural areas and the Democrats trying to make gains in the suburbs?

MR. HULSE: Yeah, I think so. You know, Georgia now has two – is going to have two races, so you’re going to see this real effort –

MR. COSTA: Jon Ossoff, who ran in that special back in 2017 –

MR. HULSE: Spent a lot of money.

MR. SHERMAN: And lost.

MR. HULSE: Yeah, and lost, but they’ll – yeah, there’s – it’s the exact same thing and they’re going to – you know, they’ll be testing everything, and then find out where they can really go to try and win, both sides. I think the Senate – I don’t think anyone – and Jake, you could disagree with me but I don’t think you do – I don’t think anyone’s really seeing in Washington the House being in play, that the Republicans are going to win back the House. But the Senate is the real fight.

MR. COSTA: That’s Carl’s view as a reporter, but what about the Pelosi lieutenants, do they share that view?

MR. SHERMAN: I think they think – Pelosi said this week at her press conference that they believe they’ll have the House won in the next month or two, by November is what she said, of this year, of 2019 not 2020. Pelosi doesn’t lack for bravado, and that’s served her well in her time. No congressional leader lacks for bravado, Kevin McCarthy either. But it’s going to be a long slog for Kevin McCarthy to get back to the majority. There are some low-hanging fruits for Republicans. There’s a seat in Minnesota. There’s a seat in Kansas they can win back. But there are seats in Texas the Democrats could snatch from Republicans quite easily given the way that state’s going.

MR. COSTA: This Democrat, McCready, we heard from Speaker Pelosi that he’s a so-called great candidate in her view. What kind of candidate was he on policy? Was he running as a Medicare for All Democrat?

MR. HULSE: It was – drug costs I think was a big issue for him. The opponent was also involved in that gender bathroom bill, which I think was a big undertone of the campaign. But it was a classic, again, here’s a guy running on a – sort of a healthcare – real pocketbook healthcare issue about drug costs. I think that the Republican had missed a big vote in the legislature on this that they hurt him with. So healthcare again big for the Democrats.

MR. SHERMAN: And one other – one other thing he campaigned on which was very, very effective for him, Donald Trump said Democrats want to destroy America and are anti-America. And he said, well, I’m the only one in this race who signed up to go to Iraq voluntarily as a Marine, and Donald Trump didn’t, and neither did my opponent, Dan Bishop. So he was able – he’s kind of a unique candidate in that sense; he was able to blunt these attacks.

MR. HULSE: Was that you who asked him if he thought he was – McCready was really anti-American and he said yes?

MR. SHERMAN: Yes, yes. You know, we asked the Republican, do you believe what Donald Trump said; is this guy – is your opponent anti-American? And he said yes.

MR. COSTA: What a preview of 2020 – (laughter) – maybe you could expect next year across the nation.

MS. SUMMERS: Absolutely. I think this is certainly telling us kind of what those contours are going to look like, a state like North Carolina certainly a perfect testing ground for some of these attacks. It’ll be curious to see what lessons come out for these – for these 2020 candidates nationally, but also in some of these pivotal races the – in seats that Democrats want to win over.

MR. COSTA: Great. Well, that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re online check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.


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