House Republicans escaped disaster in North Carolina, but…

On Tuesday night, Republicans escaped a cataclysm.

Republican Dan Bishop beat Democrat Dan McCready in a special election in North Carolina’s 9th District, an outcome that, given the clear Republican lean of the suburban Charlotte district, should have been a lay-up for the GOP. Bishop won by 2 points after both national parties spent more than $10 million in the district.

That Bishop won — whether by two votes, 2 points or 20 points — averts what would have been an absolute panic within the GOP conference had he come up short. Politics is, at its essence, about winning and losing — and when you have a party coming off as sweeping a defeat as House Republicans suffered in 2018, it’s always a good thing to wind up on the victorious side of the ledger.

But it is also true that Bishop’s victory — and the way in which it was achieved — should still be read as a warning sign for a party that is dealing with a very unpopular President and a decidedly unsettled political environment. Consider:

1) President Donald Trump won this seat by 12 points in 2016. Mitt Romney won it by 10. A Democrat hasn’t represented this area in Congress since the 1960s.

2) There are 34 seats currently held by Republican incumbents where Trump won by less in 2016 than he did in North Carolina’s 9th.

3) National Republicans will not be able to spend multiple millions next November to save every seat with the political profile of the North Carolina seat.

“To be clear: a ~2% Bishop (R) victory in NC09, a district that voted for Trump by 12%, is still bad news for the House GOP overall,” tweeted David Wasserman, the House editor for the non-partisan political handicapping site the Cook Report. “It won’t do anything to convince House Rs undecided about seeking reelection in 2020 that they’re in position to win back the majority.”

Now, it is also true that Republicans faced unique challenges in the 9th — due to the fact that the 2018 result was thrown out due to widespread alleged absentee ballot fraud by a consultant affiliated with the Republican nominee’s campaign. That isn’t something they will need to deal with in the vast majority of other competitive districts in the country.

Taken in total, however, the North Carolina result on Tuesday likely won’t put to rest concerns among potentially vulnerable GOP members about their political fates next November. Avoiding outright panic doesn’t mean that all is well. There are degrees of concern, and there’s plenty for Republicans to be concerned about.

The biggest worry coming out of Tuesday night has to be the suburbs. In 2018, Republican candidates got drubbed in the suburbs — due, in large part, to the distaste that Republican and independent women felt toward Trump. That trend continued Tuesday, with McCready actually outperforming even his 2018 showing in Mecklenburg County, a suburban county just south of Charlotte. On Tuesday, McCready won Mecklenburg by 13, a 3-point improvement on his margin from 2018.

Now, Bishop still won — thanks to increased performance in the more rural parts of the district where Trump remains very popular. In an interview with CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday, Bishop credited Trump’s last-minute rally as the key to his win. “We were making progress, but the President and vice president pence coming in I think it put us over the top,” he said.

The problem for lots of Republican House members looking at 2020 is that their districts are more suburban than Bishop’s. There aren’t enough rural areas to make up for the major progress Democratic candidates are making in the once GOP-dominated suburbs. (In 2018, suburban voters comprised 51% of the electorate and split their votes between Democratic and Republican candidates. Less than a decade earlier — 2010 — Republicans won suburban voters by 12 points.)

If you are a sitting Republican member of Congress, you might be breathing slightly easier today than you would have if Bishop had lost. But you shouldn’t be breathing easy. Tuesday’s election suggests that the prevailing political winds that swept the GOP out of the House in 2018 are still blowing — even if we don’t know how hard yet.