CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The first returns in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District showed Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Dan Bishop locked in a close race Tuesday, as both sides prepared for a long night.
McCready led in early voting 54.3% to Bishop's 45.2%. Democrats typically lead in early voting. Republicans traditionally turn out in greater numbers on Election Day.
The election is the last undecided race of 2018. Last fall's 9th District election was nullified after state officials found evidence of election fraud in Bladen County. Polls have suggested the race is a toss-up.
On Monday the race drew President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to the district to stump for Bishop. Pence even appeared on WBT radio Tuesday morning for a final plug. Trump emailed a final appeal in the afternoon.
Almost $20 million has been spent to blitz the airwaves with TV ads. Only one special House election in U.S. history has seen more outside spending than the nearly $11 million in the 9th District, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Libertarian Jeff Scott and Allen Smith of the Green Party are also running for the seat that has been vacant since January. Republican Mark Harris beat incumbent Robert Pittenger in the 2018 GOP primary.
N.C. Republicans sought unsuccessfully to extend voting hours in one Union Country precinct Tuesday that had the wrong address printed on a web site. The State Board of Elections essentially denied the request.
Tuesday's winner won't have long to celebrate - filing for his 2020 reelection campaign begins in just 12 weeks.
For both major parties, the race is important for what it suggests about 2020.
Trump carried the 9th District by nearly 12 points in 2016, and no Democrat has represented it since the early 1960s. A Republican loss would embarrass the GOP in a state that next year not only will be a presidential and Senate battleground but host the GOP national convention. And it would show the Democratic Party could replicate its 2018 success by relying on issues like healthcare.
A Republican victory would show the strength of Trump's coattails in a district in which he personally invested his time and political capital. It would reinforce the power of issues such as immigration. Tuesday night in Fayetteville Trump told supporters they have a "chance to send a message to the America-hating Left."
"The fact is the Democratic candidate aligns more with the SOCIALIST SQUAD than he does with the People of North Carolina," Trump emailed Tuesday. "He's been bought and paid for by Nancy Pelosi and he'll only contribute to their corrupt agenda."
In response, McCready has reminded voters that he's a former Marine who served in Iraq and came back to start a successful business.
Campaigning Monday in Fayetteville, he said the special election is not about Washington but about what matters to voters here in North Carolina. "There's only one person in this race who has served our country in uniform, who has already fought to keep our country safe, and it ain't Dan Bishop," he said.
Bishop consistently tied himself to Trump and sought to cast McCready in the mold of more left-leaning Democrats.
"I'm conservative Dan ... Pro-life. Pro-gun. And pro-wall," he said in his first TV ad. "Wrong Dan? He'll fall right in line with his friends - socialists, radicals, they hate the values that made America great." On Facebook this month, he said McCready is running a campaign "right out of the radical leftist playbook."
McCready pushed issues like healthcare and education designed to appeal to less partisan voters.
"That's a message that appeals to middle-of-the-road voters," Morgan Jackson, a McCready strategist, told the Observer recently. "If you're going to be successful you've got to turn out your base and you've got to appeal to the middle."
McCready hammered Bishop over actions he took in the General Assembly, including a 2017 vote in which he was the only senator to vote against the final version of the Pharmacy Patient Fair Practices Act. He had voted for another version of the same bill.
Despite the barrage of TV ads, both campaigns knocked on thousands of carefully targeted doors.
Bishop mobilized hundreds of volunteers who manned phone banks and went door-to-door. McCready's campaign claimed to have knocked on 100,000 doors over the weekend.
A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has said much of the group's $5 million investment in the race was on under-the-radar grassroots organizing.
The DCCC decided "to quietly invest in the race ... and avoid an air war that would nationalize the race," spokesman Cole Leiter said. Democrats believe that one reason they lost a special election in Georgia two years ago was because of all the national support - and money - garnered by Democrat Jon Ossoff.
ABC News reported Tuesday that groups such as the Progressive Turnout Project, a national grassroots field organization, focused their turnout efforts on inconsistent voters to help McCready.
Early results were delayed when the State Board of Elections voted to extend voting in Mecklenburg's Precinct 220 by 25 minutes after a gas leak forced the precinct's closing at 5 p.m. Mecklenburg officials said voters were sent to an adjacent Mint Hill precinct.
(Staff writers Teo Armus and Lauren Lindstrom contributed to this report.)
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