FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Republicans are hoping an eleventh-hour pep talk from President Donald Trump will propel them to a special election victory Tuesday in a GOP-friendly House district in North Carolina, a race that could illuminate their chances of retaking the House majority and Trump's own reelection prospects in 2020.
Trump urged an arena packed with MAGA-hat wearing supporters Monday to vote for conservative state Sen. Dan Bishop, who's in a tossup battle for the vacant seat. Playing to evangelical Christians in the crowd, Trump said Democrats are "not big believers in religion" and added, "Tomorrow, we take the first steps in firing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and winning back the House."
Trump's appearance, the same day Vice President Mike Pence and Bishop barnstormed the district by bus, underscored the GOP's all-hands effort to avert defeat. Trump carried the district by 11 points in 2016 and the seat's been held by Republicans since John F. Kennedy was president in 1963, and a loss would nurture doubts over whether the anti-Trump momentum that fed Democrats' House takeover last year has faded.
Opposing Bishop was moderate Democrat Dan McCready, a former Marine who earned a Harvard master's degree in business and narrowly trailed in an election for the seat last year that was later invalidated after evidence surfaced of election fraud.
Both sides saw Tuesday's contest as too close to call — in itself an ominous sign for Republicans.
The district stretches from Charlotte, one of the nation's financial nerve centers, through its flourishing eastern suburbs and into less prosperous rural counties along the South Carolina line. With next summer's Republican National Convention in Charlotte, Democrats would love to boast control of a congressional district in the city where Trump will be renominated.
Over half the district's votes will likely come from Charlotte's suburbs. As Democrats captured 39 GOP-held seats last November and took control of the House, many of their pickups were in suburbs — even in red states like Texas, Kansas, Utah, South Carolina and Oklahoma.
Special elections generally attract such low turnout that their results aren't predictive of general elections, especially in presidential years. Even so, Tuesday's vote will be scrutinized for signals about whether GOP erosion in such communities has continued, particularly among women and college-educated people who have abandoned Trump in droves over his conservative social policies and vitriolic rhetoric on immigration and race.
Trump will need to stem his erosion in suburbs to ensure that his solid support from his rural and conservative, die-hard loyalists is sufficient for him to carry swing states in the Midwest and elsewhere like Arizona and North Carolina. He won North Carolina by less than 4 percentage points in 2016.
Over the weekend, independent voter Colette Bailey paused at a shopping mall in suburban Waxhaw to explain why she'd backed McCready in early voting.
"Anyone who supports Trump is not somebody who I can support," said the 49-year old potter.
At a Sunday service Bishop attended in rural Monroe, retired teacher Cheryl Cantrell cited Trump's endorsement as a reason for supporting Bishop.
"Trump's doing the job I personally hired him to do," she said.
Bishop, 55, has essentially bound himself to Trump, backing his proposed border wall with Mexico, accusing Trump critics of being intent on "destroying him" and calling him "a man of character" in a weekend interview. His conservative credentials include his authorship of that state's 2016 law that dictated which public bathrooms transgender people could use, which was repealed after it prompted a national outcry and boycotts that The Associated Press estimated cost North Carolina $3.7 billion.
McCready, 36, has used his creation of a company that's financed solar energy projects to cast himself as a job creator and environmental champion. He's also focused on containing health care costs and has kept his distance from Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, favorite GOP demons, and his party's 2020 presidential contenders as they embrace progressive proposals like expanding Medicare to cover everyone.
The district received a black eye this year when state officials voided its 2018 election, which McCready lost by 900 votes to then GOP candidate Mark Harris. That decision followed allegations of ballot tampering by a Republican political consultant, and Harris opted to not run again.
Another jolt of notoriety occurred in July when Trump staged a rally for Bishop in Greenville. Trump said four Democratic women of color should "go back" to their home countries, though all but one was born in the U.S. The crowd began chanting "Send her back," and Trump did not try to stop them.
For months, Republicans have faced flagging morale over their hopes of regaining the House majority.
That mood has been aggravated by announcements from 15 GOP lawmakers so far that they won't seek reelection next year. Democrats control the House 235-197, with one independent and two vacancies. Both open seats are in North Carolina and the GOP is expected to retain the other one Tuesday, which runs along the state's Atlantic coast.
That seat has been vacant since February, when 13-term GOP Rep. Walter Jones died. Republican Greg Murphy, a doctor and state legislator, was expected to defeat Democrat Allen Thomas, the former mayor of Greenville, in that race. Trump won that district in 2016 by 23 percentage points.