CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Voting is underway in a congressional special election in North Carolina being viewed as both the last bit of unresolved business from the 2018 midterm election and the first indication of how voters are feeling about President Donald Trump and the 2020 race.
The race will test the president's political capital and Trump rallied in Fayetteville on Monday to boost Republican Dan Bishop. "Tomorrow is your chance to send a clear message to the America-hating left," Trump said.
Trump also tweeted his endorsement and donated the maximum $2,000 to Bishop's campaign, but at the same time the president and his allies have downplayed the significance of the race on Trump's own re-election prospects in 2020.
Still, every one of the dozen voters who spoke with NBC News in Indian Trail, a suburb of Charlotte, said the president was a factor in their decision.
Trump easily carried the Republican-leaning 9th Congressional District, which includes parts of Charlotte and Fayetteville and large swath of suburban and rural territory in between.
But Democrat Dan McCready has made the contest competitive thanks to a head start, the national undercurrent of blowback against Trump, and a second chance after the 2018 election result was thrown out due to an illegal absentee ballot scandal.
In that earlier race, former GOP nominee Mark Harris led McCready by 905 votes, but was never given a seat in Congress after allegations emerged that a consultant working him for him had improperly handled absentee ballots.
A new election was ordered and Republicans chose a different nominee for the do-over: Bishop, a state senator who backed the state's controversial "bathroom bill," which prohibited transgender people from using the bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity.
Both parties have worked hard to contest the race, with Republicans aware that losing the seat would require them to win one extra one — 20 instead of 19 — to reclaim the House majority in 2020.
Bishop and GOP outside groups also have been field testing the kinds of attacks they may use against other Democrats next year, especially on immigration.
"My opponent represents the Nancy Pelosi choice and the Elizabeth Warren choice toward Green New Deal, sanctuary cities, which she is specifically in favor of. And ultimately socialism. More government domination of everything. That's the choice voters have," Bishop said on Fox News.
Democrats, meanwhile, hope a win in the traditionally Republican suburbs here will not only help protect their majority, but energize the party heading into next year's presidential election.
McCready, a solar energy entrepreneur and former marine, is running as a moderate who will "put country over party" and focus on local issues in a district that hasn't sent a Democrat to Congress since 1963.
"They're running against a United States Marine," McCready told NBC News. "They're running against a capitalist who has built a business from scratch and helped create 700 jobs all across North Carolina. We are going to continue to spread our message of working together to lower health care costs, to take on prescription drug costs, to take on the big pharmaceutical companies, to strengthen our public schools, and to work together."
In a second special election in North Carolina on Tuesday, Republican Greg Murphy is facing off against Democrat Allen Thomas. The district's former incumbent, GOP Rep. Walter Jones, died earlier this year. Trump carried this district easily in 2016 and Murphy is expected to prevail.
Special elections have a mixed record of predicting future elections, but are still closely watched by parties and analysts as rare real-world tests of voters' attitude between regular contests.
Alex Seitz-Wald reported from Washington and Caldwell reported from North Carolina.