WADESBORO, N.C. ― The ingredients were all there for a lazy Labor Day. A midday sun beating down, burning the skin and driving temperatures into the low 90s. A plentiful spread ― chicken, hamburgers, corn dogs, baked beans, macaroni salad ― plus lemonade and even a cotton candy machine. And not one but two bounce castles provided distraction and entertainment for any rambunctious children.
But Dan McCready, a Marine veteran and businessman who is the Democratic candidate in a special election for the 9th Congressional District here, didn’t need lazy. He needed energy. And Dannie Montgomery, a public school teacher who serves as the chair of the Anson County Democratic Party, was determined to provide it.
“Don’t you hear the music?” she yelled to the crowd of about 50 who had gathered to experience the food and entertainment provided by McCready’s campaign as The Staple Singers’ 1972 hit “I’ll Take You There” blared from speakers. “If you have not voted, we will take you there!”
McCready is now in his 27th month of running for Congress ― his youngest daughter, not yet born when he began running, recently celebrated her second birthday ― and whether he ultimately makes it to Washington may depend on whether the favorable political environment and liberal energy that powered Democrats across the country to victories in red districts like this one is still a conductive force 10 months later.
In November, it appeared McCready had lost to his GOP opponent, a pastor named Mark Harris, by just under 1,000 votes ― a bitterly close loss in this complicated, conservative and gerrymandered district, which starts in Charlotte’s southeastern corner and then sprawls eastward, picking up rural areas, small cities with significant African-American populations and the largest Native American reservation east of the Mississippi River.
Within days, it became clear something was amiss in Bladen County, where a GOP operative named McCrae Dowless was quickly accused of large-scale absentee ballot fraud. A subsequent investigation showed Harris knew about Dowless’ activities, and the House of Representatives refused to seat the Republican. Harris eventually called for a new election, prompting a special election scheduled for Sept. 10.
Tom Williams via Getty Images Dan McCready, Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s 9th District, talks with voters at his campaign office during his education tour in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, in August.
McCready essentially never stopped campaigning, and is now in a race both parties agree is neck and neck against Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop in what is essentially the final election of the midterms, pitting a moderate political outsider on the Democratic side against a veteran Republican lawmaker.
A McCready win would show the political battle lines are little changed from where they were when Democrats thrived in 2018. Republicans are rallying their base, hoping to stave off the type of special election result that previewed their eventual loss of the House of Representatives. President Donald Trump, who won the district by 12 percentage points in 2016, and Vice President Mike Pence are both set to campaign in the district Monday, one day before the election.
For now, McCready is trying to squeak out every last vote he can. His campaign threw the barbecue here because it’s just a quarter-mile away from the only early voting location in the district that was open on Labor Day, and there are vans in position to shuttle attendees from one location to the next.
Montgomery, the local Democratic Party chair, acknowledged some voters in the district had tuned out the election.
“In some cases, folks were not aware. But that’s why we’re here,” she said.
But another speaker at the barbecue had a message that would perk them up: “If you’re voting for that other Dan, the wrong Dan, you’re voting for 45. I won’t even say his name.”
Like every other election since 2016, Trump has loomed over this one. Bishop has eagerly embraced the president, and has suggested in interviews that Trump backers have a simple calculation: If you support the president, you should back him.
McCready has treaded more carefully around Trump. Asked if a vote for Bishop was equal to a vote for the president, he instead argued that Bishop is “more extreme” than Trump, citing Bishop’s vote against a state-level version of a federal law Trump signed aiming to lower prescription drug prices, and attacked him for sponsoring North Carolina’s infamous “bathroom bill.”
“He’s obviously worried because he’s bringing in everybody and his mom to campaign against us and save him from his record,” McCready said, referring to Trump and Pence’s upcoming visits.
The next day, Bishop showed up at a library in Mecklenburg County ― where Charlotte and about 40 percent of the district’s voters are located ― to cast his ballot early. In a sign of how difficult the political environment remained, he talked up not his conservative bona fides but his past work across the aisle.
“I’ve got a record, and it’s a lengthy record of bipartisan accomplishment in the General Assembly,” Bishop told a gaggle of reporters. “I want to go to Washington and take that same can-do, common-sense solutions approach and support the president.”
He sounded almost as much like a 2018 Democratic candidate as McCready did.
Democrats so far have opened up a substantial lead in early voting, according to EQV Analytics, a Democratic data firm in the state. About 40% of all early voting ballots have been cast by Democrats, compared to just 32% for Republicans. (Democrats typically lead early voting in North Carolina, but this lead is larger than the one McCready held at the same point in the original 2018 election.)
The McCready campaign, flush with cash ― he’s raised $3 million more than Bishop ― has been able to fund an extensive get-out-the-vote machine, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spending another $2 million on organizing, data and analytics, with much of it targeted at African-American and Lumbee Tribe voters. Other Democratic groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the League of Conservation Voters and NextGen America, have also chipped in with television ads, mailers and organizing on college campuses.
Republicans have responded with $4 million worth of television ads. While many early GOP attacks on McCready mirrored the House Republican strategy of trying to tie moderate Democrats to members of “the Squad” of left-leaning Democratic freshmen, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, more recent attacks have focused almost exclusively on McCready’s business record.
McCready said attacks linking him to the Squad didn’t resonate with voters and that campaigning during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary hasn’t forced him to change his message. (McCready did return a $2,000 donation from Omar earlier this year.)
“I don’t think I’ve had a single voter bring them up,” he said of the Squad. “Reporters always ask.”