Republican Dan Bishop defeated Democrat Dan McCready in a North Carolina special congressional election 51-49, keeping this historically conservative seat red (Trump won it in 2016 by 11 points). The special election occurred because the initial result in 2018, a narrow Republican victory (by a sub-1000 vote margin), was tossed out after massive voter fraud efforts were uncovered in support of the prevailing GOP candidate.
So, what do we make of it?
The highest tide of the "Blue Wave" has receded
2018 was always going to be a high-water mark for the Democratic Party. Just as the 2010 Tea Party backlash didn't presage a GOP victory in 2012, huge Democratic wins in 2018 doesn't necessarily tell us that much about 2020. A narrow Democratic victory in Wisconsin in 2018 translated to a narrow Democratic defeat in 2019, for example, and that bodes extremely ominously for 2020. And so too here: Bishop generally overperformed GOP 2018 numbers all across the district save Mecklenberg County (mostly suburban Charlotte) -- though he still dramatically underperformed Trump's margins. "Losing a Trump +11 district by less than a point" was the Democratic high water mark, and it receded to "losing it by two points."
The big question, then, is not whether Democratic gains would ebb after 2018, but by how much.
There are no moral victories, but there are data points
Commenting on a similar special election race in early 2018, I wrote that while there are no "moral victories" in politics, there are data points, and Democrats overperforming their 2016 margins by approximately 10 points is such a data point even when that still results in a narrow defeat. Some people scuffed because "a loss is a loss", but history vindicated the trend lines.
Since 2018, Democrats in special elections have outperformed Hillary Clinton's performance by approximately 5.5 points. That's not "crushing Blue Wave" territory, but it's certainly good news. It'd be enough to flip North Carolina blue, for example (and a 9 point swing, like we saw in this election, would do so decisively).
Sub/urban vs. rural continues to be the division of note
We sometimes speak lazily of "rural" as a synonym for "White conservative", but places like North Carolina ought remind us that there are plenty of southern locales with significant rural Black populations. McCready won Scotland County (population 36,000, 51% White) and Anson County (population 25,000, 49% White) by double-digit margins. But that's not surprising: Hillary Clinton won both those counties by double-digit margins too. Bishop's best county by far was not rural but exurban Union County, which he took by 20 points.
Nonetheless, when one looks at trend lines the sub/urban vs. rural divide certainly seems to be alive and well. Those blue-ish rural counties? McCready might have won them, but he barely improved on Clinton's numbers and was way behind his 2018 performance. By contrast, Mecklenberg County, which comprises parts of Charlotte and its suburbs, was the one place McCready overperformed: his 13 point margin beat his benchmark indicator by 4 points and obliterated Clinton's 47/50 defeat in 2016.
Meanwhile, a 20 point Republican victory in the exurbs of Union County sounds good until you compare it to Trump's 31 point margin in 2016. It was in rural areas, including those blue-ish leaning ones, that Bishop made up serious ground. Holding McCready to the same margins in Anson County that Hillary Clinton got is a big deal when Clinton lost the district by 11 and McCready lost by just 2.
From a strategic standpoint, there's different conclusions one could draw from this. One conclusion is that well-educated suburban areas are the wave of the Democratic future and liberal organizations should try to consolidate gains there -- if places like Mecklenberg go from light-red swing districts to double-digit Democratic strongholds, that's a disaster for Republicans in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and many other states besides. A different conclusion is that these areas aren't enough to win and McCready's failure to mobilize turnout in heavily African-American regions of his district shows that Democrats cannot take these voters for granted anymore. It does no good to run up the score in the suburbs if you lose the entire margin when reliably Democratic Black voters stay home.
Voter fraud works?
In the Atlantic, David Graham makes the provocative point that -- while we don't know if Dan McCready would have won the 2018 election had his Republican opponent not engaged in ballot tampering -- there's no question that it helped GOP chances even though he got caught. Republicans were always going to be better positioned to win here in a 2019 special versus in the 2018 blue wave (see "highest tide has receded", above). And so in that sense, the voter fraud move paid off. Hopefully that lesson isn't internalized.