CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Trump’s top advisers claimed credit Wednesday for a Republican’s narrow victory in a special House election in North Carolina the night before, even as Democratic and Republican officials alike said Dan Bishop’s two-point win in a district Trump easily carried only underscored how the widening urban-rural divide is complicating 2020 for both parties.
Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, told reporters on a conference call that the president’s Monday night rally in Fayetteville, N.C., 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.
Parscale’s victory lap was conducted on behalf of a president who privately grumbled to several aides on Tuesday that he was not getting the credit he deserved for delivering a Republican victory in the closely watched special election.
And it came with a dose of ribbing for Democrats, who believed their nominee, Dan McCready, a Marine veteran, could eke out a win in a district Trump carried by 12 percentage points in 2016. Bill Stepien, one of Trump’s top political advisers, sarcastically congratulated Democrats for a “moral victory” before saying his party would gladly take the “actual victory.”
Yet what was effectively the final contest of the 2018 election — state officials ordered a redo of the race after Republicans were discovered to have funded an illegal vote-harvesting scheme in a rural county — was most revealing for demonstrating that the demographic divisions that shaped the midterms are only growing.
Bishop, who was not on the ballot in 2018, won in large part because he improved on the Republican performance in the more lightly populated parts of the sprawling, Fayetteville-to-Charlotte district. And McCready, who was the Democratic nominee in 2018 and ran again in the special election, performed even better in the upscale Charlotte suburbs on Tuesday, even as he lost by a larger overall margin.
“The national pattern seems to have played out,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., adding of the county that includes Charlotte: “I think certainly the collapse of the Republicans in Mecklenburg is continuing.”
These seemingly inexorable trends — the red growing redder while the blue gets bluer — underscore how difficult it will be for Republicans to reclaim the sort of metropolitan seats they need to recapture the House majority next year. But the same pattern also illustrates why it will be difficult for Democrats to reclaim the Senate in 2020 unless they can improve their performance with rural voters.
For Trump, the North Carolina results amounted to proof that he enjoys rock-solid support with his base of working-class white voters — but that such devotion may not be sufficient for him to win a second term if he cannot improve his standing with suburbanites, particularly women.
Even as he and his high command were crowing about their success on Wednesday, their morning-after glow was jarred by a new ABC News/Washington Post national poll. The survey showed Trump with lackluster approval ratings and indicated that, if the election were held today, he would lose to a handful of his potential Democratic rivals. Most striking was the test heat between the president and Joe Biden: The former vice president was leading Trump by 55 percent to 40 percent among registered voters, according to the poll.
But it is far from settled whom Democrats will ultimately nominate, and whether they will rally behind a candidate who aims an appeal at moderate voters or someone further left who can motivate progressives in a way Hillary Clinton failed to in 2016.
Many leading officials in the party are fretting about what many Republicans are counting on: that Democrats will put forward a candidate Trump can portray as out of the political mainstream.
If that happens, there could be a repeat in some states of what took place Tuesday in and around Lumberton, at the eastern edge of the district.
McCready won the surrounding county, Robeson, by more than 15 percentage points in 2018 against Mark Harris, his previous opponent. On Tuesday, McCready won the county by only 1.1 percent.