Politics & Climate Change: Will Hurricane Florence Sway This North Carolina Race?

A solar entrepreneur and a former Baptist pastor are fighting for a Congressional seat in a district devastated by the hurricane.

President Donald Trump lauded Republican candidate Mark Harris (center), a conservative former Baptist pastor, during an event in North Carolina on Sept. 1. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Im

President Donald Trump lauded Republican candidate Mark Harris (center), a conservative former Baptist pastor, during an event in North Carolina on Sept. 1, the day of Sen. John McCain's memorial service in Arizona. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The path of devastation wrought by Hurricane Florence cuts through one of the nation's most competitive Congressional contests—a race that pits a solar energy entrepreneur against a former Baptist pastor who has balked at climate science.

Election 2018

It's not clear if the ruin left by the deadly storm, whose destruction was seen by scientists as a signal of the changing climate, will sway voters in either direction on Nov. 6.

There are some stark contrasts between the candidates when it comes to their views on the nation's energy future and its implications for climate change, but the new-energy Democrat isn't putting much focus on the issue or explicitly attacking the Republican's record of climate denial.

Even before Florence struck, the Democratic Party had targeted North Carolina's 9th Congressional District with hopes of capturing a seat that has been in GOP hands since 1963.

The incumbent, Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, had been defeated in the primary by Mark Harris, 52, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.

Harris, a former Baptist pastor, helped lead the successful 2012 push for an anti-gay-marriage amendment to North Carolina's constitution (later nullified by the U.S. Supreme Court). This is the third time he has sought election to Congress since then.

In 2014, he ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate. Asked whether he believed in climate change, he answered "no" —as did the other three contestants for the Republican nomination. More recently, Harris has said the answer to climate change is "just to be good stewards of the Earth." He believes in abolishing the Department of Energy, along with several other cabinet-level departments.

Views like that may not square with a district inundated by two hurricanes in three years, where 68 percent of voters think that global warming is happening, just 2 points less than the national average.

The Democratic candidate, Dan McCready, is a former Marine who launched a successful solar business in the North Carolina, the nation's second biggest solar state behind California. Credit: McCready Campaign.The Democratic candidate, Dan McCready, is a fo

The Democratic candidate, Dan McCready, is a former Marine who co-founded a solar investment firm in North Carolina, the nation's second largest solar state behind California. Credit: McCready Campaign.

On the Democratic side, primary voters chose Dan McCready, a 34-year-old former Marine and Harvard Business School graduate who co-founded a solar investment firm that has sunk $80 million into 36 renewable energy projects across the state.

McCready has sought to deliver a centrist message in an effort to appeal to unaffiliated voters, who outnumber Democrats in the district, said J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. "He has taken a very moderate approach to public policy issues, directing a lot of attention to issues in the district," said Bitzer. "The rise of the unaffiliated voter has been a major feature of North Carolina politics."

"I'm someone who brings us together," McCready was quoted as saying in The Charlotte Observer. "Mark Harris is someone who represents the extreme ideology that has turned Washington into a swamp in the first place."

McCready highlights his career as a successful solar entrepreneur who has brought jobs to North Carolina, and he includes clean water and clean air among his top issues, but he doesn't talk explicitly about climate change.

Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University in Cullowee, N.C., said he does not expect Hurricane Florence to change that.

"McCready knows the district, and to try to talk about a big macro change in terms of a small micro event in the confines of a campaign is going to be difficult," Cooper said. "If McCready makes hay of any climate issue, it's going to be something like coal ash, which connects with what people can see on the ground. Coal ash is definitely part of the conversation in North Carolina."

But Richard Greene, a retired Charlotte engineer who is active with Citizens Climate Lobby, a group that is trying to garner bipartisan support for putting a price on carbon, thinks the impact of the storm could reverberate with voters.

"More people have seen two feet of rain, and that's evidence that climate change is real," Greene said. "And the next politician that says it's not real has got to ignore more evidence."

Could The 9th Become a Swing District?

President Donald Trump won the district by 12 percentage points, but that doesn't necessarily put it out of reach for a Democrat. Catawba College's Bitzer compares McCready's style to that of Rep. Connor Lamb, a Democrat who won a special election last March in a Pennsylvania district that Trump won by 20 points.

The 9th District on North Carolina's southern border spans both the suburbs of the state's largest city, Charlotte, and two of the state's most impoverished rural counties—Robeson and Scotland. A large chunk of voters in the district—31 percent—are unaffiliated with either party.

McCready has raised $2.7 million, far more than Harris' $928,000, and the most recent poll, conducted in July by the conservative Civitas Institute, showed the Democrat with a seven-point lead.

"A Democrat in this district probably shouldn't be competitive, but he's raised an extraordinary amount of money, he's an appealing candidate—a veteran," said Cooper.

"As it has expanded and become more urbanized, with population growth, it's a hard district for people to get a handle on," Cooper said. "But what has happened is both sides have become polarized. In a way, it's a microcosm of North Carolina, and North Carolina is a microcosm of the country. McCready's strategy has been to work on the unaffiliated voters, work to convert some Republicans, raise a lot of money, and highlight some of Harris' more incendiary comments."

The Candidates' Responses to Florence

Into this already brutal contest swept Hurricane Florence. Homes, businesses and roadways that flooded during Hurricane Matthew two years ago were underwater again. In the 9th District, a 14-month-old baby was swept from his mother's arms into the raging floodwaters. State officials were keeping watch on a coal ash pond near the swollen Lumber River. 

McCready Tweeted scenes from rescue shelters and emergency information, including links for donations to the North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund.

Harris' Twitter feed showed the former pastor helping workers pack bottled water into the back of a pickup truck, saying, "Continue to pray for these good folks. They are strong and will bounce back."

Neither campaign responded to requests for comment on the impact the storm and its aftermath might have on the race.

McCready had announced he was suspending his campaign as Florence approached the state, and he directed TV stations to temporarily stop running his ads. Harris's campaign derided the move as a "gimmick." Harris had purchased 56 additional ads on The Weather Channel as the storm neared landfall, Huffington Post reported.

Trump and Sermons About the Role of Women

Other issues, too, may strengthen the Democrat's hand at a time when Trump's unpopularity is dragging down Republicans in House districts all over the country.

Women's issues are politically volatile, given the uproar surrounding Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's Supreme Court nominee. Cooper noted that "Harris has made some comments about women that wouldn't be welcome at most time periods, particularly not this one." 

In July, a story broke about a 2013 sermon Harris had delivered questioning whether a career was a "healthy pursuit" for women. The Civitas poll taken at that time showed McCready leading Harris by 16 points among likely women voters. Since then, the newspaper Roll Call has unearthed more past sermons showing Harris has preached extensively on the idea that women should submit to their husbands.

Trump also added his support for Harris. On Sept. 1, the day of Sen. John McCain's memorial service in Arizona, the president traveled to Charlotte to attend a fundraiser for Harris and Rep. Ted Budd, who is fighting to keep his seat in the 13th District, north of Charlotte. "They're going to help us keep America great," Trump said in a brief public appearance with the candidates.

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