Trump, Republicans try to keep grip on North Carolina congressional district

By Susan Cornwell

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON, Sept 10 (Reuters) - One of the most expensive special elections for the U.S. Congress takes place on Tuesday in North Carolina, with both major parties watching to see whether President Donald Trump's Republican Party can keep its grip on a long-held seat.

Democrats are hoping for an upset in North Carolina's sprawling 9th Congressional District, where polls showed Republican Dan Bishop running neck and neck with Democrat Dan McCready.

The suburban-rural area in the southeastern part of the state has been represented by Republicans in Congress since the 1960s and voted for Trump by about 12 percentage points in 2016. A special congressional election was ordered after last year's voting was tainted by fraud.

Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence flew to North Carolina on Monday for last-minute campaigning with Bishop, a 55-year-old state senator who has embraced Trump's policies and politics.

"You have a Democrat named Dan McCready, and he wants open borders, he wants sanctuary cities, he's not going to protect your Second Amendment," Trump told the cheering crowd at a rally in Fayetteville, referring to the constitutional right to bear arms.

A Republican victory would help the party launch a comeback effort to wrest the House of Representatives away from Democrats after losing 40 seats and overall control in House elections last year.

A Democratic win would send hopes soaring that 2018 was not necessarily their high-water mark as they aim to lure more voters away from Trump and his fellow Republicans in 2020 elections to Congress and the White House.

The North Carolina contest is the second most expensive special election for a House seat in U.S. history, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which said outside groups had spent more than $10.7 million to fill the airwaves with ads.

Only a 2017 race in Georgia cost more, when Republican Karen Handel beat Democrat Jon Ossoff in a $27 million blitz.


CLOSELY FOUGHT

North Carolina's 9th District was already getting more competitive in 2018, when McCready lost narrowly before state officials ruled the election was tainted by an absentee-ballot fraud scheme that benefited his then-opponent, Republican Mark Harris. A new election was ordered, and Harris declined to run again.

Republicans nominated Bishop, who has campaigned on taxes, the economy and immigration. He has echoed Trump's political themes, asserting that McCready "admires socialism" and linking him to the "Squad," a group of progressive Democrats in the House who Trump has repeatedly attacked.

"I share your values. I'm not ashamed of your values," Bishop told attendees at the rally with Trump on Monday. "I'm going to defend your values in Washington D.C."

McCready, a 36-year-old small-businessman and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, has sought to steer the campaign discussion away from Trump and onto issues such as healthcare, education and teacher pay.

McCready met with fellow veterans in Fayetteville hours before Trump's speech and talked about how Americans were getting "crushed" by healthcare costs.

He has labeled Bishop, who sponsored a 2016 measure in the state legislature restricting public restroom access for transgender people, as a "career politician."

"I have a feeling you're as tired of the career politicians as I am," McCready said in a debate last month. "We need people who have done things, led Marines and built businesses."

A wave of recent Republican retirements from the House has fueled speculation that Republicans fear they will not win back the majority in that chamber next year. They will need to gain 19 seats to regain the majority, or 20 if they lose North Carolina's 9th District on Tuesday.

Republicans are expected to keep the seat in another special election on Tuesday in the state's 3rd District. Republican Greg Murphy and Democrat Allen Thomas are vying for a seat left vacant by longtime Republican Representative Walter Jones’ death in February.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Fayetteville, North Carolina; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)