Fact check: Trump says 2 North Carolina Republicans were underdogs

Posted February 10, 2020 5:15 p.m. EST
Updated February 10, 2020 7:52 p.m. EST

— After his impeachment acquittal last week, President Donald Trump reminded Republicans of his importance to their success.

Trump said during a press conference on Thursday that, with his help, Republicans could take back the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

“You know, in '18, we didn’t win. We just won two seats in North Carolina – two wonderful seats in North Carolina – that were not supposed to be won,” he said. A video of his speech is available on C-SPAN’s website.

Trump continued: “But I went and I made speeches and we had rallies, and we did a great job and we won, and we took two seats. Nobody writes about that. If we lost them, it would have been the biggest story of the year.”

Trump didn’t mention any other details about the races during his speech, but it’s clear from context that he was referring to North Carolina’s recent special elections.

North Carolina last year held elections for two congressional seats: one in the 3rd District and the other in the 9th District.

This isn’t the first time Trump has boasted about his supposed influence on the 9th District race. Last year, he claimed that the Republican in the 9th District race, Dan Bishop, was “down by 17” points in the polls and then won “by a lot.” But the polls didn’t support that statement, and the final margin of the race was only 2 points, so PolitiFact rated his claim False.

Trump’s claim on Thursday was a little different. He referred to both races, and was speaking more generally about who was expected to win.

So, is it true that Republicans were underdogs in those races?

No. Let’s look at the races, one by one.

The 9th District

The 9th District race featured Bishop and Democrat Dan McCready.

Background: The election was a do-over of the November 2018 contest, when Republican Mark Harris appeared to defeat McCready. But an investigation into the results found absentee ballot fraud, and the alleged leader of the ballot scheme worked for the Harris campaign. So the State Board of Elections called a new election, and Harris dropped out.

About the district: The 9th District was home to more registered Democrats than Republicans, said Michael Bitzer, a history and politics professor at Catawba College. About 36 percent of registered voters are Democrats, 32 percent are unaffiliated and 31 percent are Republicans.

But that doesn’t mean the district favored Democrats.

“While it may seem that party registration favored Democrats, a significant portion of those registered Democrats are in rural counties, which means that they are more likely to be Republican voters,” Bitzer said.

Indeed, no Democrat had won the seat since 1963, according to the Charlotte Observer.

“Polls showed a tight race due to the Democratic-leaning national environment and Dan McCready's strength as a candidate,” said Drew Savicki, a freelance political analyst who has written for the Sabato’s Crystal Ball political blog.

But, Savicki added: Trump in 2016 won the district by 12 points, and “Democrats only hold a few seats redder than that."

Polls and predictions: It’s true that some polls showed McCready with a lead. But some polls showed Bishop with a lead.

The website FiveThirtyEight tracked some of the polling of the district. As we’ve previously reported, the most favorable public poll for McCready had him up 5 points, and the most favorable poll for Bishop showed him up 4 points.

Most experts considered the Democrat’s chance to be 50-50, at best. Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball considered the race a “toss-up,” while Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report wrote that a McCready win would be “an upset.”

The 3rd District

The 3rd District race featured Republican Greg Murphy and Democrat Allen Thomas – and wasn’t nearly as close as the 9th District race.

Background: The special election was ordered after the death of longtime Congressman Walter Jones, a Republican. He had represented the district for more than 24 years.

About the district: Voter registration favored Republicans, who had 34 percent of the population to the Democrats’ 32 percent, Bitzer said.

In 2016, Jones won with 67 percent of the vote, and Trump carried the district by 23 percent.

So the race between Thomas and Murphy wasn’t considered competitive.

“No version of the 3rd District has backed a Democrat for President since [Jimmy] Carter in 1980,” Savicki said.

Polls and predictions: The only poll documented on FiveThirtyEight showed Murphy up by 11 percent.

Sabato’s blog said the race leaned Republican. Bitzer said in an email: “I can’t recall any handicapper or political analyst ever thinking that the NC 3rd was in danger of going to Democratic.”

PolitiFact reached out to the White House and the Trump campaign about his claim but didn’t hear back.

“To say that Republicans were not likely to win either of those seats makes it sound like analysts had both seats rated as Democratic-likely elections,” Bitzer said. “To my knowledge, there was no data or polling that would have indicated that scenario.”

PolitiFact: Mostly False

Our ruling

Trump said Republicans “just won two seats in North Carolina ... that were not supposed to be won.”

In 2019, Republicans Dan Bishop and Greg Murphy won their respective special elections. But neither was considered an underdog.

Some polls showed Bishop trailing McCready, and there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in that district. But it’s a stretch to suggest the Democrat was expected to win. We rate Trump’s claim Mostly False.

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