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A rare do-over congressional election is a chance to battle-test 2020 strategies

North Carolina state Senator Dan Bishop during a debate among Republican candidates for the 9th Congressional District in Monroe, N.C., in May. He will face Democrat Dan McCready, as well as Libertarian and Green candidates, on Sept. 10.
North Carolina state Senator Dan Bishop during a debate among Republican candidates for the 9th Congressional District in Monroe, N.C., in May. He will face Democrat Dan McCready, as well as Libertarian and Green candidates, on Sept. 10.Chuck Burton/Associated Press/Associated Press

ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C. — The Republican competing in the do-over race in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District has been running an ad featuring circus music and wobbling clown dolls. The dolls, he says in the commercial, represent “the crazy liberal clowns” of today’s Democratic Party.

“They’re not funny,” the candidate, state Senator Dan Bishop, declares. “They’re downright scary.”

Affixed to the clown heads are the faces of some of the opposing party’s more left-leaning national stars, including Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Another prominent face is that of Bishop’s Democratic opponent, Dan McCready — a Marine combat veteran who does not support Nancy Pelosi as House speaker and whose motto is “country over party.”

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This rare redo election, set for Sept. 10, has emerged as an opportunity for Republicans to battle-test a 2020 strategy that seeks to stuff all Democrats, even the most moderate ones, into a sort of conceptual clown car driven, as another of Bishop’s ads puts it, by “socialists” and “radicals” who “hate the values that make America great.”

State officials called for the new contest in February after evidence surfaced that the 2018 campaign of the previous Republican candidate, Mark Harris, had funded an illegal vote-harvesting scheme in rural Bladen County. The head of the state elections board called it “a tainted election” — an embarrassment for Republicans and for Harris, who is sitting out the new race for what he said are health reasons.

Since then, Republicans have argued that an even greater danger to America has surfaced in the Democratic Party.

President Trump has laid the groundwork for the strategy with his racially inflammatory attacks on four liberal first-term Democrats in Congress, all of whom are women of color. And the message that Democrats are not just wrong, but crazy or even dangerous, is now central to Republican campaigns in a number of battleground districts around the country, as well as in governor’s races this year in Louisiana and Mississippi that feature Democratic candidates more moderate than McCready.

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At the same time, the message has been consistently reinforced by Republicans of national stature like Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, who Tuesday sent out a fund-raising e-mail with the subject line “Democrats vs. America,” in which he said the party “hates the American flag” and, among other things, “promotes terrorism.”

In North Carolina’s 9th District, which covers part of Charlotte and a number of exurban and rural counties to the east, Bishop’s attacks on McCready come amid a notable lack of repentance among area Republicans for the allegations of electoral fraud in rural Bladen County.

A recent poll leaked to reporters and conducted on behalf of McCready’s campaign showed the race tied among likely voters. But a key question is whether a window of opportunity has closed for McCready, who fell short in the midterm by fewer than 1,000 votes.

The district has not elected a Democrat to the seat since 1962, and Trump won the district by more than 11 percentage points in 2016. Some Republican observers are hoping that the anti-Trump tide that allowed Democrats to retake the House in November has receded. They also feel more confident that the new nationwide message painting Democrats as out of touch has changed the narrative in their favor.

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“We’re no longer talking about mean, nasty Republicans,” said Larry Shaheen, a Republican political strategist who supports Bishop. “Now it’s, are we electing a socialist Democrat or a capitalist Republican?”

Bishop, 55, is well suited to the task of pressing an aggressive case against McCready and his fellow Democrats. An accomplished corporate lawyer from Charlotte, he has served in both the state House and Senate, emerging as one of the more controversial and combative members of a Republican-led Legislature that aggressively sought to give traditionally moderate North Carolina a shove to the right.

Three years ago, Bishop was the sponsor of House Bill 2. Before it was repealed, the legislation, known nationally as the “Bathroom Bill,” plunged the state into political chaos with its requirement that transgender people use restrooms in government and public buildings that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate. The furor over the bill, and the threats of corporate boycotts and canceled sports events, helped deliver a Democrat, Roy Cooper, to the governor’s mansion, but Bishop boasted of standing up to the “radical transgender agenda.”

Still, since easily winning the Republican primary in the current race, Bishop has not particularly emphasized HB 2, saying that voters were “tired” of the controversy. In an interview last week,. Bishop instead stressed his role in the sound fiscal management of the state, which he says has allowed for surpluses, teacher pay increases, and new funds for road construction.

His opponent, McCready, enjoys a pronounced money advantage in the race, with more than $1.7 million in cash on hand at the end of June, compared with about $345,000 for Bishop. McCready is also a known quantity in much of the district after campaigning for the seat for 27 months.

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