Trump Nation is likely to take away a lesson from Tuesday’s special election for the 9th Congressional District seat: that demagoguery can deliver the marginal advantage needed to squeak to victory.

Dan Bishop — a Trump loyalist and the Republican state senator responsible for HB 2 — and the president hammered out an attack against Democrats on the immigration fear-trafficking theme of “sanctuary cities,” helping Bishop eke out a 2-point win over Democrat Dan McCready. That’s a marked improvement over Republican Mark Harris’ bare 0.32-point win over McCready in 2018, which was thrown out because of Republican ballot fraud.

Bishop’s victory is widely seen as a bellwether for Trump’s re-election bid next year and Republican efforts to retake the House and maintain control over the Senate, particularly in the suburbs. Politico reported that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy cited the North Carolina special election as a concern in a meeting with GOP donors in Wyoming last week, and the outlet quoted Club for Growth President David McIntosh as saying, “It’s a test to the effectiveness of Republican to win back districts with heavy suburban populations.”

The southern tier of Mecklenburg County, covering the Charlotte suburbs and supplying about a third of the votes in the 9th District, has been steadily trending Democratic, with the Democratic nominee’s share of the vote leaping from 41.9 percent to 53.9 percent between 2016 and 2018. Although Union County — home to the late segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms — remains a Republican stronghold, the Democratic share of the vote increased from 31.8 percent to 39.1 percent over the same period. This time around, McCready picked up a couple points in the Charlotte suburbs, and held steady in Union County. But he effectively lost the race at the eastern end of the district in Robeson and Cumberland counties.

Democratic support in Cumberland, which includes Fayetteville and a heavy military presence, dropped from 51.4 percent to 49.6 percent from last November to Tuesday’s special election. Worse was the Democratic wipeout in Robeson, a racially polarized county with a population roughly evenly distributed among Lumbee Indian, black and white residents. The Democratic vote share increased from 52.1 percent to 56.4 percent between 2016 and 2018, but plummeted to 50.3 percent on Tuesday.

The “sanctuary cities” theme embraced by Trump and Bishop is a variation on the “migrant caravan” scare that Trump attempted, largely without success, to galvanize support for congressional candidates in the 2018 midterms. “Sanctuary cities” might be more effective because it conjures a fear of ominous forces right at home instead of a geographically distant threat.

The template was set by Republican Marsha Blackburn’s victory over Democrat Phil Bredesen in last year’s US Senate election in Tennessee. The Intercept recently reported that a Koch brothers-backed company, i360, used a “vast database of voter profiles” to determine that immigration could be used as a wedge issue to Republican advantage. A testimonial on the company website said, “i360 further segmented the universe using the Sanctuary Cities model which identified voters likely to oppose Sanctuary Cities policies like allowing illegal immigrants to get drivers’ licenses — a policy Bredesen favored while governor.” (He did not favor allowing illegal immigrants to get drivers’ licenses; Politifact found that in 2006 Bredesen ended the program, which was created through a law signed by his Republican predecessor, Don Lundquist.)

In North Carolina’s special election, Bishop ran an ad attacking Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden, a black Democrat, for limiting cooperation with Immigration Customs Enforcement.

And on Monday, Trump hammered the theme further during a campaign stop in Fayetteville.

“But one of the biggest issues of this election is, in fact, sanctuary cities,” he said. “McCready supports sanctuary city policies that force prisons and jails to release criminal aliens directly into your neighborhoods. ‘Get out. Go ahead. Go into the neighborhood.’”

McCready’s position is unremarkable. In an Aug. 23 interview with WBT-FM the Democratic candidate said he thought Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of HB 370, which would have required sheriff’s to hold inmates up to 48 hours without a warrant or court order so that ICE would have time to pick them up, was “the right call.” In fact, the policy embraced by Cooper and McCready was pioneered by Republican sheriffs.

Former Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes, a Republican who campaigned with Trump in 2016, implemented a policy in 2014 of not holding undocumented immigrants under ICE detainers without a valid criminal arrest warrant or court order if their cases had been adjudicated. The Forsyth County jail, also under the leadership of a Republican sheriff through 2018, followed the same policy. The federal courts have already sorted this one out: If someone doesn’t have a pending criminal charge and hasn’t been convicted of a crime, it violates the Fourth Amendment to deprive them of their liberty.

None of these facts are likely to reach Trump voters. So the game for Republican candidates in 2020 will be to see how many times they can say “sanctuary cities” at campaign events, on television and in Facebook ads.

On Monday, Trump singled out a member of the audience in Fayetteville.

“What’s your neighborhood?” he asked. “Where do you live?”

They lived in Rutherford County, way on the other side of Charlotte from the 9th District.

“How do you feel about having them release hardened criminals into Rutherford County — I don’t think so,” Trump said. “But your whole state, it’s — honestly, can I be honest? It’s crazy what’s happening — this whole thing with sanctuary cities.” 

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