Just over a year after Republican Dan Bishop was narrowly elected to the House of Representatives in a special election, he's fighting to keep his seat in a district where voters have been shifting their political leanings in both directions.
He is being challenged for the seat in North Carolina's 9th District by first-time candidate Cynthia Wallace. The Democrat, who works in the financial services industry, is running to replace Bishop and widen her party's majority in the House after years of working on Democratic campaigns.
Bishop's race in 2019 was considered an early bellwether of the 2020 presidential election. Republican candidate Mark Harris beat Democrat Dan McCready in the regular 2018 race by just 905 votes. But the state's Board of Elections did not certify the results because an operative working for Harris' campaign was accused of carrying out an illegal ballot-harvesting scheme. The board opted to hold a new election, but Harris declined to run again due to his health.
Bishop, then a state senator from Charlotte's Mecklenburg County, replaced Harris as the Republican nominee. At the time, he was best known for his sponsorship of North Carolina's "bathroom bill," H.B. 2, which required schools and public facilities with single-gender restrooms to allow people to use only the restroom that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificates.
The bill sparked backlash from around the country and put a strain on the state's economy as progressives labeled it discriminatory against transgender people. The NCAA temporarily banned playing championship games in the state, PayPal halted plans to build a new global operations center there, and Bruce Springsteen canceled his concert date there.
Since becoming a member of Congress, Bishop has been a fairly consistent GOP voter, going against his party just over 5% of the time, according to a ProPublica analysis.
The Cook Political Report rates the race as leaning Republican. Although Bishop won with fewer than 5,000 votes, the fact that the Republican candidate won twice will be a challenge for Democrats to overcome this time around, according to Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
Heberlig said Democrats' awareness of that challenge likely contributed to the fact that Wallace's campaign hasn't received the same influx of cash as the previous Democratic candidate saw in 2018. At the time, McCready raised more than $6.6 million in the regular race, several times more than the $2.1 million his original Republican opponent, Harris, raised, according to OpenSecrets. This year, Wallace has raised over $651,000 as of mid-October, according to Open Secrets, while Bishop raised nearly $4 million.
But Wallace could benefit from a broader shift toward Democrats in the state, which the Cook Political Report has rated as a toss-up for the Electoral College.
"If Biden is able to win the district, particularly based on high Democratic turnout, that has the potential to boost Wallace's performance, because as we've seen people are much less likely to split their ticket than they were 20 years ago," Heberlig said. "The district is competitive enough that even a Democratic candidate who isn't able to advertise very much or isn't able to stand out much on her own could be lifted by the overall Democratic performance in the district."
Wallace told CNBC in an interview this month that she is focused on local issues she believes are important to voters in her district, while she says Bishop has fixated on national partisan issues such as calls from progressives outside the district to defund the police.
"I'm talking about the things that are going to change people's lives, not what's happening in Portland," Wallace said. "My pitch to [voters] is, you're going to get someone that's focused on kitchen table issues, and her No. 1 priority is your economic outcomes."
Bishop's campaign did not make him available for an interview, but in a statement he said he is focused on both local and national issues.
"I work hard on my constituents' priorities," Bishop said in the statement. "Some are local, like clearing away obstacles for businesses and families to keep going in the pandemic and advancing Lumbee tribal recognition. Others are national but with great local impact, like my legislation to make healthcare more available and affordable. I guess my opponent objects to my strong support for law enforcement, but she should tell that to the cops who've endorsed me and that I've met with in Laurinburg, Rockingham, Indian Trail, Monroe, Waxhaw and Charlotte. I work for those folks because they're working hard for all of us."
Running in a purple state in a district that leans Republican, Wallace has focused on issues that have been fairly safe for Democrats across the country, such as health care. She said she would support a more uniform, federal response to the pandemic and criticized her opponent for supporting protests to lift restrictions put in place to contain the spread of the virus.
"Do you want someone that's going to be serious about the issue that affected everyone's life?" Wallace said. "One of the cases I'll make to folks is you'd be electing someone that takes your health, your safety and your economics seriously."
The makeup and political leanings of the district have shifted significantly in both directions over the past few years, making this election a test of where the district ultimately shakes out.
"Because this district is unusual in the sense that it has both urban, suburban and rural areas, you see all of those national trends in the same district," Heberlig said. "One of the questions going into 2020 is, if urban and suburban areas are increasingly shifting Democratic, are rural areas shifting Republican enough to counter-balance that? Or how does the different turnout in different places balance out? In the 9th District, we just see that in a microcosm all in one district."
While Union County has remained largely conservative, according to Herberlig, the eastern and western parts of the district "are shifting in opposite directions." Rural areas in the district have shifted more toward Republicans since 2016 while highly educated voters in more urban and suburban areas around Charlotte have trended toward Democrats, Heberlig said.
The election will test how willing voters are to break from Trump and other Republicans running in the state.
"If independents break strongly against Trump and [Sen. Thom] Tillis and say, 'I'm just soured on the Republican Party and I'm going to vote for all Democrats,' that's the type of trend that Wallace would benefit from in pulling her over the top," Heberlig said.