WAXHAW, N.C. — Does Conor Lamb strike twice? Dan McCready certainly hopes so. Like Lamb, who won a special House election in Pennsylvania two months ago, McCready is a Democratic congressional candidate competing on steadfastly Republican, Donald Trump-friendly turf.
Like Lamb, he’s a veteran, he’s young and he’s brand new to politics. And like Lamb, he has exceeded expectations in a fashion that contributes mightily to Democrats’ hopes for a House majority after November. If McCready succeeds in North Carolina’s 9th District, which has been represented by Republicans for the last 55 years, Democrats are in a good position to win big overall. Success is no fantasy. In the primaries on May 8, McCready got more votes in a two-way contest on the Democratic side than all three candidates combined on the Republican side. What’s more, he’ll go head-to-head in the general election not against the Republican incumbent, Robert Pittenger, who lost his primary, but against a former pastor named Mark Harris with extremely conservative social views. Several prognosticators just changed their rating of the race from “leans Republican” to “tossup,” and the veteran North Carolina Republican strategist Paul Shumaker, who worked for Pittenger, told me: “I would not be surprised if, come September or October, you don’t see it rated ‘leans Democratic’.” That’s fascinating. But McCready’s race is also worth watching because of the questions it raises — and the answers it may provide — about how Democrats should run in districts that aren’t any hue of blue. Like Lamb, McCready casts his military service — he led a Marine platoon in Iraq — as proof that he puts country before party. Like Lamb, he communicated quickly and early that he would not support Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House if Democrats took back the chamber. And like Lamb, he steers away from some hot-button issues and progressive rallying cries. When he spoke on Thursday night to the Union County Senior Democrats in the Charlotte, North Carolina, exurb of Waxhaw, he was twice pressed on whether he was prepared to impeach Trump and twice gave a studiously tempered response. “I will treat very seriously the responsibility to look at facts,” he said. “I know a lot of people want to talk about President Trump, but let me talk for a moment about this race and about Mark Harris.” When I had dinner afterward with him and his wife, Laura, I asked him about a few issues dear to many Democrats, especially liberal ones. A ban on assault weapons? He said that he’d rather focus on background checks. A national minimum wage of $15? He has reservations. He volunteered his agreement with certain provisions in the recent tax overhaul and with some rollback of regulations. I brought up same-sex marriage, because Harris, his opponent, led the charge against it in North Carolina. McCready didn’t talk about dignity and equality. “I think it’s been decided,” he said, referring to the 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court. McCready is among more than a dozen Democratic House candidates backed by two relatively new national groups trying to influence the 2018 election. One of them, New Politics, supports candidates with a record of national service such as the military or Teach for America. It’s bipartisan but has a mostly Democratic slate for the midterms. The other, Serve America, is a Democratic PAC that is run by Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and dedicated to veterans like him, McCready and Lamb. One of the ideas behind it is that veterans can project a less partisan, petty image and perhaps do better than traditional Democrats in districts that aren’t blue. “They’ve learned to work with people of different backgrounds and ideologies,” Emily Cherniack, who founded New Politics, explained to me recently. “Their framing has been to put the country first and solve problems.” McCready has selling points beyond that, with an all-boxes-checked résumé that seems impossibly long for his age, 34. He has an elite education — a bachelor’s from Duke, an MBA from Harvard — along with the Marines. He started a successful North Carolina company with a social conscience: It rounds up investment for solar farms. He and Laura have four kids between the ages of 10 months and 7 years. They said that their crucial conversation before he decided to run was with their Presbyterian pastor. The restaurant that he chose for our dinner serves North Carolina barbecue at modest prices. He ate pulled pork, and when Tom Petty came over the speakers, he pronounced himself a fan. He made clear that his dismay over the 2016 election and worry about this “really dark chapter of American history” were motivations for his candidacy, but also said, “I’m not running against President Trump.” His focus, he explained, must be the bread-and-butter needs of his district’s residents. Lamb took a similar tack. In fact the most relevant, instructive thing they have in common may not be military service but the refusal to let their races be nationalized and their insistence on outsider status. “I’m not a politician,” McCready told me, several times. “This is not a career.” He even characterized Washington as — wait for it — “a swamp.” I arched a brow. “I think it’s a pretty accurate noun,” he said. John Kibler, the president of the Union County Senior Democrats, told me, “If you prayed to God for a candidate to break the stranglehold of 55 years of Republican control — ‘God, I want the perfect candidate’ — it would be Dan McCready.” I asked Kibler to describe McCready’s politics. “Center,” Kibler said. “Maybe even center-right.” That’s perfect? “That’s what it takes to win in this area of the state,” he said. Many national Democratic leaders agree. Despite McCready’s apostasies, he landed on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list, which directs support to especially promising candidates, last November. DCCC officials are being realists, as are the local Democrats who turned out for McCready. They’re recognizing that a Democratic majority requires Democratic maturity. “We don’t need to welcome a wider range of views if we want to keep losing,” Moulton told me. “But if we actually want to be a majority party, then we better embrace more Americans.” The back-and-forth about whether Democrats should be more moderate or progressive, and about how much of the party orthodoxy should prevail, is foolish. The answer differs from place to place — or at least it should at a moment when no objective matters more than containing Trump by controlling the House, the Senate or both. McCready is a better bet for containment than any Republican elected in his stead would be. He’s a bit of a blur for my tastes, but so what? He can win. And right now that’s the tastiest attribute of all.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service