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Two Dans, Two Elections, and No Winners

A typical North Carolina moderate might beat a Trump ally in Tuesday’s special election, but state Democrats need to think longer term.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

Meet Dan. Dan is in favor of increasing the ballooning military budget. He likes Medicaid expansion, but isn’t so hot on this Medicare-for-all deal. He’s a solar energy entrepreneur, so he’s in favor of proactively tackling climate change, but also maybe wishes that Senator Bernie Sanders would cool it with the talk of nationalizing the public utilities. This Dan also fund-raises like gangbusters, to the degree that his campaign coffers helped prop up a major and much-needed statewide victory for North Carolina Democrats. But should any of that money come from, say, one of three sitting Muslim members of Congress, then he’s more than happy to return it.

Now, meet the other Dan.

Dan sponsored the bathroom bill—yes, that bathroom bill. Dan is an Always-Trumper. Dan loathes the concept of women being able to make decisions about their own bodies, to an extent as extreme as presently exists in America. He’s compared Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott and sees no reason abortion bans should make exceptions for rape or incest. This Dan, to be brief, is not a pleasant politician. Don’t be like this Dan.

Come Wednesday morning, one of these Dans should finally be able to claim the title of elected member of the House of Representatives. So why, in a race where the choice is so clear for anyone with a drop of empathy or consideration for those who might look slightly different, do the options still feel disappointing?

Tuesday’s Dan McCready–Dan Bishop special election for North Carolina’s 9th district is arguably the purest distillation of North Carolina politics to appear in the past decade, or, at least, it’s the most heavily scrutinized. Over $15 million has been poured into this campaign, making it the second-most expensive House race in congressional history. Much like they did for Senator Doug Jones’s election in 2017, political pundits have droned on for months now about how this race will serve as a preview of 2020, and of the future of the two parties.

To an objective observer, it is crystal clear which Dan would be better for essentially everyone that isn’t a white, business-owning, fundamentalist Christian man. But beyond the ballot, the contest between the two Dans isn’t so much about who would be the better member of Congress as it is about the limits of what North Carolina politicians are willing to offer citizens.

This election has managed to garner outsize attention for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that Republican Mark Harris narrowly claimed the seat—by 905 votes—last November, only to see the ensuing reveal of election fraud swiftly negate the victory in an exquisite, heartbreaking display of political theater. The conclusion featured Harris’s own son, an assistant U.S. attorney, taking the stand and publicly admitting that he had warned his father of the illegality of his election tactics, only to be ignored. Harris, watching from his seat in the courtroom, maybe ten feet away, wept as his son spoke the truth. Several days later, the elder Harris dropped out of politics entirely. This opened the door for Bishop—a (somehow) much more stereotypically Republican candidate than his Baptist pastor counterpart—to burst onto the scene wildly waving a Trump flag, further nationalizing an already nationally studied election.

One factoid that has popped up in most every article about McCready’s run for the 9th is that the seat has not been held by a Democrat since 1963. While that is true, the reason is largely wrapped up in districting, with a heavy sprinkling of home-cooked racism.

Charlotte, and really Mecklenburg County, were Republican strongholds at the start of the twentieth century—the North Carolina chapter of the GOP did not begin to wholly transform into the race-baiting organism it is now until the arrival of Jesse Helms in the Senate in 1972. Through the 1990s, the district encompassed most of the Queen City, before redistricting efforts resulted in the 12th district siphoning off the city core. Still, Republicans ruled the roost, and were further emboldened by the historic wave that swept through the state House and Senate in 2010. So, in 2016, the state GOP, unleashing its supermajority, infamously redrew the electoral maps. The conservatives tipped the 9th on its side—rather than running vertically South to North, the district was widened and ran nearly 200 miles West to East, with the portions of Charlotte it still included serving as its eastern border.

Subsequently, the suburban McMansion dwellers commuting into Charlotte suddenly shared a sprawling congressional district with farmers, truckers, linemen, and folks who used to be tobacco farmers and textile factory workers. Economically and racially, the district is about as diverse a mix as exists among modern American legislative maps. And for the first time in, well, forever, those who wanted a seat in Congress had to pay attention to both the desires of the liberal city, the conservative Bible Belt towns, and everything in between—including the largest tribe east of the Mississippi.

The Lumbee Tribe, one of eight state-recognized tribes in North Carolina, has long called Robeson County home. Since the colonizers washed up on our shores, the Lumbee have been relegated to the back of the minds of politicians. North Carolina officials, historically speaking, have spent little time thinking of them and thought little of them when they did. As a result, local politics in Robeson are slowly crawling out from underneath the remnants of the machine politics that dominated the twentieth century, and the town, among the most diverse in the nation, is still working to overcome multiple generations of corrupt and openly racist policing. All this while the Lumbee try to establish a stable local economy of their own, without the freedoms to set their own laws, all atop a very recent foundation of segregation that cut out the Natives of the South.

A usually conservative voting bloc (forced assimilation of Indigenous people through Christianization seems to have that effect), the Lumbee have never been high-percentage participants in national or state-level elections. When they have turned out, it’s typically been in favor of the GOP. In 2016, Robeson County went to Trump by four points and to conservative governor Pat McCrory over the eventual winner, moderate Democrat Roy Cooper, by seven.

Yet in the 2018 race for the 9th, between McCready and Harris, McCready claimed the county by 15 points. Then and now, it wasn’t particularly hard to see why the tribe went for the Democratic candidate. McCready’s middle-of-the-road approach didn’t offend any of the county’s borderline conservatives’ values. He’d already called for the federal recognition of the Lumbee (a whole can of worms). Hell, he even swung by homecoming and scored a collards sandwich.

So, it’s partially because of his genuine efforts to secure the Lumbee vote that it feels at least a little disappointing that McCready, and candidates of his politically vanilla flavoring, continue to dominate the upper echelons of North Carolina’s nominally left wing.

The past 20-odd months of campaigning for the 9th have made clear that McCready is exactly the kind of candidate the Democratic establishment would love to welcome into their ranks. The election has not been a look ahead to the presidential race; it’s been a chance to look at the evolution of the state electoral system, wherein conservatives have now made stretching straightforward policy proposals to the extremes a regular part of their campaign playbook, a tactic begrudgingly maneuvered by their Democratic counterparts, ever fearful of being associated with “The Squad” or that cantankerous senator from Vermont.

McCready has never been anything close to radical, or even just a boring ol’ leftist. He’s about as moderate as they come, a North Carolina specialty. He openly wilted when it was his turn to defend Representative Ilhan Omar, a potential future colleague. He’s opposed to beginning impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. He regularly talks about loosening regulations for businesses. He’s repeatedly dodged questions about an assault weapons ban, always pivoting to background checks.

Still, Bishop has relentlessly tied McCready’s boat to those of the progressives, lumping them all together as “crazy liberal clowns” at every turn on the campaign trail. McCready, for his part, has stayed the course, never veering from the line cutting through the middle of the two parties, trying his best to be the Good Dan, the one who believes there is “no room for divisiveness in politics,” a phrase his campaign used to excuse his rejection of Omar’s donation.

As Bishop consistently has, both Dans could have, theoretically, claimed to believe anything they thought would help them win. And yet, the issues laid out here are the hills they’ve staked out as their own. Both Dans, in their own specific ways, are lackluster offerings. They are also, to a maddening degree, regionally specific products of their environment: one, cushioned by the support of the president, allowed to hold little regard for whatever shockingly sexist notion spills from his lips next; the other, staring at a decade of North Carolina Democrats shooting themselves in the foot, hewing as close to the Republican line as he can without jumping ship.

To a certain degree, McCready’s approach is understandable, if dated. He’s trying to walk a fine line and cater to a district that, like most of the other districts in the state, should not and will not exist come the next congressional election in 2020. But thinking past Tuesday’s election, to a year from now, when (possibly incumbent) McCready is back on the campaign trail trying to convince voters on the left that they should trust a Democrat who loves to espouse “country over party” and is willing to shake hands with the other side of the aisle, that’s where the concern starts to set in—by trying to appeal to those in the middle, McCready runs the risk of appealing to none.