What Can We Learn from the North Carolina 9 Special Election?

6 mins read

I traveled to Charlotte to help get out the vote for Democrat Dan McCready in his quest to win the 2019 special election in North Carolina’s Congressional District 9 (NC 9). McCready lost in 2018 only by 900 votes in an election that had to be nullified after evidence of election fraud by a Republican campaign operative. Democrats across the country considered this election an opportunity to test the potency of the strategy successfully employed by Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections which focused mainly on “kitchen table” issues such as cost of healthcare and education.

I felt that a win will help energize volunteers in their support for Democratic candidates running in 2020, so I took a break from the upcoming elections for the Virginia House of Representatives and spent four days knocking on doors of voters likely to support McCready. I was disappointed when I learned that McCready lost, albeit by a small margin, and tried to make sense of the result. Articles published the day after the election agreed that Republicans need to be concerned by the small margin of their win, Democrats should worry about the erosion of their share of the rural vote, and that Trump’s rally the day before the election helped energize Republican voters. Searching for a broader context for assessing McCready’s loss, I looked up voter turnout for NC 9 elections in 2018 and 2019, recalled another special election I knocked doors for in 2017, and reflected on what I observed walking from door to door in and around Charlotte. 

Special election blues

The 2019 NC 9 special election resembles the 2017 special election in Georgia’s District 6 (GA 6) when Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel in spite of his impressive fundraising and the enthusiasm of volunteers from across the country who helped get out the vote for him. 

The 55 million dollars spent in the GA 6 and 20 million spent in the NC 9 special elections have failed to achieve the goal of matching the voter turnouts of presidential or even midterm elections. Thus, substantially fewer votes were cast in the GA 6 and NC 9 special elections: 57,000 and 100,000 fewer votes were cast in 2017 in GA 6 and in 2019 in NC 9, respectively, compared to the 2018 midterm elections in these districts. In NC 9 the turnout was lower in predominantly Democratic areas, particularly in the suburbs of Charlotte, than in predominantly Republican areas. Some Democrats in rural areas who supported McCready in 2018 felt that their conservative values aligned closer with those of his Republican opponent in 2019 and switched their votes accordingly


In both the GA 6 and NC 9 special elections registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats and backed their party’s candidates who benefited from massive negative ad campaigns funded by Republican PACs. These already tough challenges faced by the Democratic campaigns were compounded by flaws in their voter outreach efforts. Volunteers for both Ossoff’s and McCready’s campaigns used the MiniVAN app for contacting voters with results recorded in a central data repository. Each time I knocked on a door for these campaigns I was able to review the “History” of a resident’s phone calls, texts and house visits. The potential of the information collected by MiniVAN was not fully realized in GA 6 and NC 9 elections: disconnected phones, vacant homes or inaccurate addresses were not identified and removed or corrected thus wasting time. Calling, texting or visiting voters even when they have previously indicated support for a Democratic candidate and/or commitment to vote was similarly wasteful.

Confirming the accuracy of addresses and phone numbers is not an easy problem  but could be partially solved by cross-referencing data from voter registration rolls, US Postal Service, Motor Vehicle Databases and Cellular Phone providers. Avoiding phone calls to disconnected or wrong numbers, visits to inaccurate addresses, and excessive voter contacts would free time for reaching additional voters and thus increase Democratic voter turnout.

Dust off, start over

While some voting trends glimpsed from the NC 9 election results are discouraging, they do not forebode the outcome of the 2020 elections.  I am encouraged by Democrat Lucy McBath remarkable 2018 midterm win in GA 6  only one year after the district was declared as safe Republican following Jon Ossoff’s loss in 2017. McBath won about 15,000 more votes than Ossoff while raising only $2.5 million compared to $23 million raised by Ossoff in 2017 and $8.6 million raised by her Republican opponent in 2018. 

As volunteers supporting Democratic candidates we need to maintain the momentum of retaking control of the US Congress in 2018 and ensure that voters are aware of what is at stake in the 2020 Elections. We can overcome skepticism and apathy by reaching out to as many voters as possible by calling, writing, and knocking on their doors relentlessly through Election Day. Volunteers from strongly Democratic areas need to leave the comfort of their communities, travel to Republican districts, engage voters with a different worldview, understand their concerns and persuade them to vote for Democratic candidates in 2020. In Thomas L Friedman’s words: “we all need to get out of Facebook and into someone’s face”.

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