KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— We’re moving the NC-9 special from Leans Republican to Toss-up with less than a week to go until the election. A confluence of factors makes the race too close and unpredictable for us to call.
— We’re also moving the NC-3 special election from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.
— MN-7, a truly unique Democratic district, moves from Leans Democratic to Toss-up.
Mixed signals in NC-9
It is rare for us to leave any race as a Toss-up immediately before an election, but we reserve the right to do it for special elections. Such races have unpredictable rates of turnout and can hinge on unusual circumstances.
While we’ve thought the Republicans were better positioned to win the NC-9 do-over special election — and that may end up being the case — the latest data, and the latest circumstances, suggest that the race is close enough that we should make it a Toss-up with less than a week to go until Tuesday’s election.
We did the same thing in advance of several closely contested special elections held since Donald Trump became president, rating the GA-6 special runoff, the Alabama Senate special election, PA-18, and OH-12 all as Toss-ups on Election Day. The margin of victory in those races all ended up being close, 3.6 points or less.
Let’s go over what makes the race seem so close and unpredictable.
First of all, the most recent polling is suggestive of a tight contest. Politico reported late last week that internal Republican polls give state Sen. Dan Bishop (R) a narrow 2-4 point lead, while Democratic internals had veteran and 2018 nominee Dan McCready (D) up a point. An independent poll conducted by Democratic pollster Clarity Campaign Labs and Republican Harper Polling for handicapping site Inside Elections had McCready up four points; another, by the Republican-leaning election analysis site Red Racing Horses, showed Bishop up a point. Put it all together, and the race feels like a coin flip, just like it was last November, when it seemed like former pastor Mark Harris (R) very narrowly beat McCready only for credible accusations of fraud to prompt the state to call a new election.
Early voting patterns don’t necessarily tell us all that much except that turnout seems likely to be much lower for this election than last fall, according to an analysis by Republican pollster John Couvillon. That’s normal for a special election, and it’s unclear who a lower turnout might benefit: Typically one might think Republicans given the usual reliability of the party’s base voters, but in a Trump-era special election environment, Democrats may be more engaged. Democrats came close to beating Republicans in some other special elections on typically GOP turf last cycle in races with low turnout; one of those was in SC-5 in June 2017, a district that geographically is right next to NC-9 along the border between the Carolinas (both districts contain part of the Charlotte suburbs, and Donald Trump won SC-5 by 19 points in 2016 while he carried NC-9 by about a dozen).
Adding to the uncertainty is that Hurricane Dorian is likely to strike parts of North Carolina as soon as today (Thursday), and that could disrupt turnout depending on how serious any damage is. Democrats are likelier than Republicans to vote early, so perhaps the weather could also play a role in the outcome if the storm and its aftermath is bad enough that it depresses Election Day turnout (obviously we hope that is not the case). President Trump is supposed to hold an event for Bishop in Fayetteville on Monday night; the aftermath of the storm could hypothetically impact those plans, but Trump drawing attention to the race could be helpful to Bishop in a race where every vote could count. Vice President Mike Pence is also set to stump for Bishop on Monday.
It’s possible the storm and its repercussions could impact another special election being held in North Carolina, NC-3, a coastal district Trump carried by 24 points and which doesn’t seem particularly vulnerable for Republicans. Red Racing Horses polled that district, too, and found state Rep. Greg Murphy (R) leading former Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas (D) 51%-40% in the race to replace the late Rep. Walter Jones (R, NC-3). Out of an abundance of caution, and mainly because of the unknown factor that the weather introduces into the turnout calculus, we’re going to move NC-3 from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.
The state Board of Elections wisely asked voters to cast their ballots in both races early — early voting ends Friday, although the storm has forced the early closure of some early voting sites, particularly in NC-3. The possibility of natural disasters disrupting Election Day turnout is a good argument for states to offer robust early voting (as North Carolina does).
We have one other ratings change to announce this week. Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN-7) has become a true outlier among House Democrats — and, actually, among all members of the House — for being the only member to hold a district that is wildly out of step with his own party at the presidential level. Trump carried MN-7, a sprawling, rural district that covers much of the western half of the state, by 31 points in 2016. While there are 30 other Democrats who hold seats Trump won, his next-best district among them was NY-22, an upstate New York district held by Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D) that Trump carried by 15.5 points. In other words, Trump’s margin in MN-7 was roughly double that of his margin in any other Trump-won district held by a Democrat. Republicans, too, control no districts that voted for Hillary Clinton by such a lopsided margin; there are only three Republicans in Clinton-won districts, and she didn’t get even 50% of the vote in any of them.
Peterson is a moderate and a good fit for his district, but outliers like him have become less and less common, to the point where he essentially stands alone among House members. His victory margins have been going down in recent years: He beat Dave Hughes (R) in both 2016 and 2018 by five and four points, respectively, while dramatically outspending him both times. On Labor Day, former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach (R) entered the race, giving the Republicans a candidate with perhaps a higher ceiling that Hughes (who also is running again but whom national Republicans do not appear to prefer). Fischbach, formerly the state Senate president, became lieutenant governor after then-Gov. Mark Dayton (D) appointed then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (D), to the Senate in late 2017 after Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) resigned. Fischbach later became former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s (R) running mate on his gubernatorial ticket, but they lost the primary and Rep. Tim Walz (D) won the governorship.
Even though Peterson has a good local reputation, his narrowing margins of victory and Trump’s likely looming landslide in the district almost prompted us to start his race as a Toss-up when we released our initial House ratings at the start of the year. Fischbach’s entry into the race is a likely indication that national Republicans will push harder in the district than they have the last couple of cycles. Peterson, meanwhile, could decide to retire, although getting targeted by Republicans could also inspire Peterson to double down and compete harder, as he did the last time national Republicans spent heavily in the district (2014).
Fischbach’s challenge comes in the final contest of the current Minnesota congressional map before the state (and all others) will redraw after the 2020 census. Minnesota is likely to lose a district because of slow population growth, and MN-7 would be a logical one to chop up. The state has three geographically big, largely white, rural/small city districts (MN-1, MN-7, and MN-8). MN-1 and MN-8 both flipped to Republicans in 2018 — two of their three pickups anywhere last year — leaving MN-7 as the only one remaining that’s held by Democrats. Democrats control the governorship and the state House of Representatives, while Republicans are defending a small majority in the state Senate next year. If Democrats win the state Senate and hold the state House — and thus obtain total control of the redistricting levers — they might target Fischbach if she wins; or, if Peterson wins, he might decide to finally retire, and Democrats could try to divvy up MN-7 in a way that advantages them. Or, if control of redistricting remains divided, a court may end up drawing the map, as has happened in Minnesota before. The overall point is that even if the Republicans win this district in 2020, it might go away in 2022.
However, Republicans can’t worry about the 2022 redistricting map. They are trying to cobble together a path to the majority now, and a 31-point Trump district is one that should be part of such a roadmap. Peterson is no slouch, but the trends are what they are and Fischbach gives the GOP a more credible potential challenger to him, which is why MN-7 is now a Toss-up in our ratings.