One Sunday morning this spring, the Republican candidate stood in the pulpit of a cavernous Baptist megachurch off a dusty road outside of Charlotte, bellowing about bathrooms.
"I'm here to tell you this morning that they can call it a new morality. They can call it the new normal,” thundered Mark Harris, a former Baptist pastor, referencing a fight over bathroom access for transgender people that tore this state apart two years ago. “But God has said it's same old sin" — his voice shook with emotion as the crowd’s applause began to drown him out —“and I'm going to stand on the...word of the living God."
Twelve miles away and one night earlier, the Democratic candidate stood in a lushly flowering backyard in a residential slice of Charlotte, taking a different kind of stand.
“This is a calling I feel,” Dan McCready drawled to a well-heeled group of friends and potential supporters, using a phrase often employed by religious Christians, “to get off the sidelines and fight back for people who deserve better in North Carolina."
On paper, a socially conservative Republican should trounce just about any Democrat here in North Carolina’s Ninth District, which stretches from south suburban Charlotte east through more rural counties to the Fayetteville area. It went for President Donald Trump by nearly 12 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election and is a decades-long GOP stronghold.
Yet like so many other typically Republican districts across the country, this year, it is very much in play.
Part of that is because progressives are energized, raring to defeat Trump at every electoral level, and they are activating here and nationwide. And part of it is because moderate suburban women who have little affinity for the Democratic Party are increasingly uncomfortable with today’s GOP — a party now defined by unshakable loyalty to Trump.
But perhaps most critically, the Democratic candidate here has figured out how to sound downright conservative as he talks about “regulatory relief” and respect for the military; his relationship with his pastor and his opposition to Nancy Pelosi. That helps as he aggressively targets the center-right moderates he will need to win over, knowing that he has the liberal vote around Charlotte all sewn up.
Now, the Ninth District race is emerging as a national test of just how far a potential 2018 Democratic wave can push into traditional GOP territory — and whether other conservative districts, from eastern Washington to the Little Rock, Ark. area to suburban Cincinnati, could suddenly be in jeopardy for Republicans.
Dan McCready was a Marine. Now he’s a mild-mannered solar energy entrepreneur and father of four, who comes across more as an affable, slightly harried young dad with a nerdy streak than he does a buttoned-up military man. (“I’m like a wannabe arborist,” McCready, 34, told me as we left the backyard campaign stop, admiring the blooming trees on the way out).
“You can see why he fits in in small-town America where people are friendly and kind, he’s not a New York City type,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, his friend and fellow veteran from Harvard Business School who encouraged McCready to run and advises him still.
But get McCready talking and it doesn’t take long for his experiences in the Iraq troop surge to come up. Indeed, the country-over-party mentality he says he cultivated in the Marines (“It wasn’t like, ‘Democrats, let’s go take the hill, Republicans, stay back.’”) is now the animating message of his campaign, and it’s something his supporters routinely bring up.
McCready had expected to face incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger, a three-term congressman who can be prickly and polarizing, but is a fixture of the Charlotte community. Instead, Pittenger lost his primary to Harris—a man who, when not dishing out fire and brimstone from pulpits and values voter gatherings, presents as genial and gentlemanly, and has a devoted following among religious conservatives in the area.
McCready, who crushed his liberal primary opponent, also netted more votes than Pittenger, Harris and a third GOP candidate combined in the May primary contest. Anxious Republicans saw that as a sign of uncommon Democratic enthusiasm here, and a warning for other red districts with strong Democratic candidates nationally.
“Unless Republicans can mimic that in November, not only in this part of the world but all over the country, the congressional majority is in trouble,” warned former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican.
On a swing through the district this spring, I met amped-up Democrats who were salivating about voting for anyone who’s not a Republican. But, more significantly, I also encountered longtime Republican-leaning voters who are now engaging in Democratic politics—to support McCready and rebuke Trump.
Those are the same kinds of voters who have helped propel Democrats to victory in a host of other contests in GOP areas since 2016, and McCready is courting them at every turn.
He has rejected supporting Pelosi for House Speaker and sometimes refers to the “Democrat Party” instead of the Democratic Party — sounding momentarily like a derisive GOP congressman talking about the other side. He hits conservative notes in talking about his own business background: “I support regulatory relief for small businesses. I’ve lived through duplicative, really cumbersome regulations.” And, he tells me, he makes it a point to “have Republicans at all of our events — something I’m really proud of.”
In a heavily religious district, McCready also has his own story of faith: his campaign website says that in Iraq, “his fellow service members helped him find his Christian faith, and Dan was baptized in water from the Euphrates river.” And he volunteered that he only entered the congressional race after he and his wife had extensive consultations with their pastor: “We sat down and talked about, how do you know if this is a calling?”
McCready is already earning comparisons to Conor Lamb, another young Democratic Marine veteran who won a House seat in Pennsylvania that Trump took by around 20 percentage points.
“It would have to be a dramatic shift in the electorate to vote heavy to the Dems, but we saw what happened in Pennsylvania,” said Dan Barry, the chair of the Union County GOP, outside of Charlotte. “We have another young Democrat, military person running, articulate, very well-funded. Republicans need to treat this very seriously.”
Over a Diet Coke at a tony café in an affluent Charlotte neighborhood, Anne Schleusner talked about her breakup with the Trump-era version of the GOP.
Schleusner, who as recently as 2016 donated thousands of dollars to GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan and his political efforts, described going to a fundraiser that year where some attendees were ebullient over the prospect of conservative legislation Trump could sign, and were willing to overlook his most incendiary comments in return.
“I remember looking them in the eye and saying, ‘absolutely not. If you’re willing to make that deal, you’ve lost my vote,’” said Schleusner, who backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the GOP primary, before supporting Hillary Clinton over Trump.
She is one of many moderate GOP-leaning voters who broke party ranks to oppose Trump in 2016 and who have grown more alarmed since by what they see as the polarizing tenor of today’s Republican Party under Trump — something McCready lamented at the backyard meet-and greet.
"We have a president who seeks to divide us," he said. “We have a president and a congressperson who are interested in tearing this country apart.”
Schleusner, who says both Trump and Pelosi are “damaging” for the country, said she met with McCready at a Panera last summer after a more liberal friend told Schleusner about him, emphasizing his Marine background. McCready struck her as “in it for the right reasons, not a diehard Democrat, moderate.” And, impressed with “Dan’s message of country over party,” she is now a donor to his campaign.
At their meeting, Schleusner said she half-jokingly implored him to run as a Republican. “It’s a Republican district. We laughed. But then on the more somber side, we discussed how the current incarnation of the Republican Party is unrecognizable to both of us.”
Concerns with the direction of the party aren’t confined to posh Charlotte enclaves.
On a sunny Saturday morning before the primary in more conservative Union County outside of Charlotte, I stood baking in the parking lot of a local library with Pittenger and Harris, who were greeting voters. Kim Alexander brushed by, on her way to vote for McCready.
“Are you usually a Democrat?” I asked the network engineer who works in Union County Public Schools.
“No,” she said. “I just turned. Because of Trump.”
She has long been a centrist voter, Alexander said, also supporting Kasich in 2016 and then Clinton. But Trump’s election caused her to renounce her Republican voting registration.
This year, she is a Union County Democratic delegate, and first heard McCready speak at a party event.
Trump, said Nancy Rorie, the Democratic chair of Union County, “brought ‘em out of the woodwork. And I love it!”
For all of the anti-Trump sentiment simmering in the suburbs, vast swathes of this district remain steadfastly pro-Trump—and Harris is not toning down his support for the president.
“I do think he has put forth a vision the American people have bought into,” Harris said.
Harris, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2014 and nearly beat Pittenger in a 2016 primary, already has both an adoring base and detractors who find his views abhorrent.
He is known for pushing an anti-same-sex marriage platform and for supporting HB2, a measure that restricted and regulated public bathroom access for transgender people, and was ultimately partially repealed amid expensive business backlash.
But he also embraces tax reform and champions a border wall, strongly opposes abortion—and unlike Pittenger, he isn’t saddled with a history of prominent ethics controversies (Federal authorities closed a two-year investigation with no charges.). Many Republicans say he’s in step with the district and see a Democratic victory as a major uphill climb in a place where many voters are fundamentally conservative and loathe the idea of contributing to a Democratic House majority.
“When it comes to his positions, I think they align with a conservative-leaning district that is the Ninth District,” said Chris Turner, the GOP chair of Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte. He also cast HB2 as a local — and now moot — issue, and went on to add that Harris will “represent on issues that matter, which are military funding, focusing on health care reform, on looking at criminal justice reform. Those are things folks are looking at in the candidates for the Ninth District.”
Harris, who said he would join the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus if elected, started the general election with only about $70,000 on hand, while McCready had around $1 million. Washington Republicans, aware that they will be defending a big map this fall and may need to pick their spots for investments, are watching to see whether he can close that gap now and get a strong campaign organization in order, efforts Harris tells me are well underway with assistance from House leadership.
Like virtually every other Republican, Harris plans to tie his Democratic opponent to Pelosi, even though McCready opposes her for House speaker.
“He’s the party of Chuck Schumer and Pelosi,” Harris said. “Even though he says he doesn’t support Pelosi to be Speaker, he still supports the policies of Pelosi, and at the end of the day that’s what’s going to be made clear.”
McCready is trying to cast the race as a choice between a pragmatic, business-minded moderate and an extremist more focused on conservative dogma than on the district. He is plainly aware of the minefields facing a Democrat in Trump territory, and strenuously avoids partisan language — and sometimes, skirts taking a position at all.
When asked whether he would support an assault weapons ban, he pivoted: “Where I think we need to come together and focus right now is the area of comprehensive background checks...there is bipartisan appeal.”
Asked about single-payer health care, another top liberal priority, he replied, “Obamacare is broken, costs are rising astronomically in North Carolina, but I do not think the right approach is to move to a government-run system.”
And when asked if he wanted to be considered an ally of the LGBTQ community, he quickly turned to the economic implications of HB2.
“Anyone deserves equal protections under the law,” McCready said. “And the problem we had in North Carolina—we talked about politics, using issues to divide us—HB2 was one of the worst laws in the modern history of the state. We have no problems with bathrooms in North Carolina, but that law cost us thousands of jobs, cost us part of our reputation built up over decades.”
Certainly, he also shares plenty of policy positions with the Democratic base. He would not have voted for the tax bill, the GOP’s prized legislative accomplishment: “It took steps in the right direction, particularly in making American business more competitive,” but “did not cut taxes enough for the middle class.” And it’s not that he is only engaging suburban moderates: he is focused on a range of constituencies, from the Lumbee Tribe, which has a significant presence in the district, to the African American community to veterans from across the political spectrum.
But progressive warrior, he is not.
Yet that doesn’t bother even some of the most hardened liberals I met in the district.
Patrick Ambrose, Kim Alexander’s partner, was a supporter of progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016, describes himself as “to the left of the Democrats” and is appalled by the president. Is he comfortable with a moderate such as McCready?
“Oh yeah, absolutely, if it’s a centrist candidate I’m going to support the centrist candidate,” he said. “I’d just like for the House and Senate to flip. I’m done. I’m tired of this.”
And that security of knowing the left is with him has allowed McCready to go after voters in the middle — and to be extremely cautious, at times, in discussing Trump.
Over chips and guacamole at a trendy tacos and tequila joint in a suburban-feeling, prosperous Charlotte neighborhood, I asked McCready five times about the specific moment he started considering a run for Congress. He referenced his time in the Marines, detailed controversial comments Pittenger had made and talked broadly about how “broken Washington had become,” without giving a timeframe. After several minutes of pushing, he eventually said it was in “late 2016,” in a conversation with his oldest daughter “about the leadership we have in this country, the values missing in Washington,” that his “evolution” began.
The next day, at the garden meet-and-greet, he confessed that it was the day after Trump’s election.