North Carolina candidates (and some super PACs) do battle in 9th District special election

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A North Carolina resident speaks to Democrat Dan McCready. (The Washington Post / Contributor)

Tuesday’s North Carolina 9th District special election primary will decide which Republican gets to face off with Democrat Dan McCready, a Marine Corps veteran who lost by half a point to Republican Mark Harris in November before the results were rejected due to ballot tampering.  

With Harris dropping out, Republican candidates see the do-over election as an opportunity to win cleanly. But McCready’s national profile — and fundraising prowess — has skyrocketed since the 2018 election, making him a formidable foe in the Sept. 10 general election.

State Sen. Dan Bishop, Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour and Realtor Leigh Brown have emerged as the top contenders in a crowded 10-person primary.

As the top fundraiser, Bishop appears to be the slight favorite. He has raised $505,777, including $250,000 from a personal loan. The Charlotte resident garnered attention when he aired an ad comparing McCready with outspoken Democrats such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

Bishop also uploaded a 10-minute video of b-roll to YouTube. Although that might seem strange, some candidates upload such soundless videos publicly so super PACs may incorporate the footage into their ads without coordinating with the campaign. Though such coordination is forbidden, the Federal Election Commission has not once penalized any entity for illegal coordination since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that gave rise to super PACs.

Speaking of super PACs, Bishop is backed by a powerful one. After an unsuccessful effort in North Carolina’s 3rd District Republican primary, the anti-tax Club for Growth Action returned in another special election to support its preferred candidate — Bishop.

The group has focused its efforts on attacking Bishop’s opponents. Club for Growth has spent $78,580 opposing Rushing, who conservative groups have worried could lose in the general election due to his defense of the Harris campaign’s activities. Its most recent television ad labels Rushing a “pay-to-play politician” for “putting big donors on government boards.”

“If you want Donald Trump to clean up Washington, don’t send Stony Rushing there to make it worse,” the ad says.

The group has also spent $59,521 opposing Brown. She’s benefitted, however, from a blockbuster $1.3 million in independent expenditures from the National Association of Realtors. Brown spent the last two years as a top fundraiser for that PAC, which her opponents called out as a potential conflict of interest in a recent debate.

Club for Growth’s recent television ad attempts to label Brown an anti-Trump candidate, citing a December 2015 opinion piece by Brown titled “Donald Trump, you’re wrong,” which pushed back on Trump’s comment that real estate agents are “bloodsuckers.” Club for Growth itself spent more than $7 million opposing Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary but later changed its tune, just as Brown now strongly supports the president.

The ad also says Brown backed a group funding Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez, likely referring to the Realtors PAC, which has given to Pelosi and Clinton in the past and gave $5,000 to Ocasio-Cortez in 2018.

Outside of her contributions to the cross-partisan Realtors PAC, almost all of Brown’s contributions go to Republicans and conservative groups, according to CRP’s donor lookup tool. In fact the only Democrat she has even given to is Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 primary opponent, former Rep. Joe Crowley, in 2015.

Club for Growth may do better this time, as its preferred candidate is leading in most polls. A recent internal poll, obtained by WBTV, placed Bishop at 36 percent, ahead of Rushing (18 percent) and Ridenhour (13 percent). An internal Club for Growth poll placed Bishop at 30 percent, with Rushing trailing at 19 percent.

If there’s any group that is most likely to emerge as the biggest loser, it could be the Realtors PAC, as its $1.3 million in spending hasn’t propelled Brown to double digits in these internal polls.

Brown has outraised everyone except Bishop, pulling in $249,322, much of which came from her fellow Realtors. Ridenhour, a Marine Corps veteran like McCready, raked in $79,602 and Rushing raised $65,260.

The Republican nominee will have to do better to match McCready. Capitalizing on national outrage over alleged ballot tampering, McCready enjoyed a massive fundraising boost following the election. His momentum continued into 2019 as he raised $2 million from January through April 24.

McCready has $1.6 million in the bank for the upcoming election and a well of small donors to go to. McCready raised $707,665 from contributions under $200 to start 2019, while none of his Republican opponents have received significant small-dollar support.

McCready narrowly lost to Harris in November, but the general and Republican primary races were tainted by ballot tampering that may have altered the results. Trump carried the district by 8 points in the 2016 election.

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