By now, most journalists, handicappers, and party operatives are trained to restrain themselves when applying special election results to future general election forecasts.
But the redo election in North Carolina’s 9th District provides a unique opportunity to learn about the present political environment and how it’s changed since November.
Instead of simply analyzing trends in President Donald Trump’s job approval rating or the generic ballot, or a special election in a state legislative race, the Tar Heel State race gives us a chance to make as close to an apples-to-apples comparison from last cycle to now.
Of course, some things have changed since November, including a new Democratic majority in the House. And the wall-to-wall media coverage of the midterm elections has ceased. But the 9th District final result in September will provide a specific data point to compare to the last election result.
We know that in November 2018, the parties practically fought to a draw. After defeating Rep. Robert Pittenger in the GOP primary, Republican Mark Harris finished ahead of Democrat Dan McCready by some 900 votes or less (the uncertain margin is a consequence of alleged fraud by a GOP consultant). In other words, a margin of less than one-half of 1 percent determined the election.
Trump won 54 percent
After Tuesday’s primary, the stage is set for a Sept. 10 election between McCready and GOP state Sen. Dan Bishop.
If the 2018 midterm elections were a repudiation of Trump, but voters got it out of their system and the Republican Party is on the rebound, then the GOP should win a district that Trump carried with 54 percent in 2016.
If Democrats are still on a roll after gaining a net of 40 seats in the House last fall, then they should be able to win an open seat with the better-funded candidate against a Republican nominee who sponsored the controversial HB2 bill.
Even if McCready or Bishop breaks out to a multi-point win in the fall, the most significant impact will be the math to the majority, not the margin of victory.
A McCready victory would mean Republicans would need to gain 19 seats in 2020 to recapture the majority. If Bishop wins, Republicans would need to gain 18 seats.
Between now and September, you can bet on Republican and Democratic strategists trying to dampen expectations. And when the election is over, the winning party will declare it as the canary in the coal mine.
But instead of participating in that back-and-forth, resist the temptation to extrapolate results too far ahead and embrace the chance to compare two open-seat elections in the same district within the same year.
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