CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA — Hurricane Florence has exacerbated existing struggles for many residents of eastern North Carolina, congressional candidate Dan McCready said over a morning coffee squeezed into a busy campaign schedule. In Robeson County, for instance, public schools long overdue for state funding have only just reopened after being closed for five weeks.
And with some residents still waiting to receive aid for losses suffered during 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, McCready keeps hearing repeated concerns about sluggish relief since Hurricane Florence. “People are very fed up at the excruciatingly slow pace of federal recovery funds,” he told ThinkProgress. “And they should be; I’m fed up too.”
McCready, 34, a former Marine and co-founder of a solar energy investment company, is running for Congress as a centrist Democrat in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district. Stretching from southeast Charlotte to outside Fayetteville, much of the eastern part of the district was hit not just by Florence, but by Hurricane Michael a few weeks later. And in a historically Republican district, McCready is promoting a bipartisan approach to clean energy investment and climate action.
If McCready is successful, it will mark the first time a Democrat has won the seat in 55 years. The race is neck and neck, with political observers rating it a “toss up.” It’s widely viewed as one of the most competitive races in the country and is seen by Democrats as one of their better chances to pick up seats needed to flip the House in November.
McCready’s opponent is Mark Harris, 52, a conservative Republican climate science denier endorsed by President Donald Trump (in 2016, Trump won the district by 12 percentage points). During his time as a Baptist minister, Harris fought against gay marriage. And in addition to previously saying women should submit to their husbands, Harris also believes the earth is less than 10,000 years old.
During a debate on October 17, the candidates’ opposing views on climate change were made clear. “Climate change is real,” asserted McCready.
Harris instead denied the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, saying that while “there’s no question the Earth is getting warmer,” he doesn’t “buy into” the fact that humans are responsible for rising global temperatures.
Regardless of how much attention the candidates believe climate change deserves, the issue continues to loom over the race ever since Hurricane Florence made landfall in September.
From the start, the campaigns and their supporters traded jabs over their responses to Florence. Harris said McCready’s decision to suspend campaigning on the eve of the storm was a “transparent gimmick designed to score political points.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for a liberal group supporting McCready criticized Harris’ decision to buy a series of ads on The Weather Channel in the middle of Florence as being reflective of the GOP’s “rotten values.”
Now, a month later, the hurricane may not be the first thing voters ask McCready about — it’s usually health care — but it still makes the cut.
“I think people are just struggling with so many issues,” McCready said. The eastern North Carolina voters he interacts with routinely cite education funding, the opioid crisis, and job creation among their top issues.
On this last point, McCready told ThinkProgress he hopes to boost the number of clean energy jobs in the state from 30,000 to 100,000 — a proposal he believes both Democrats and Republicans can get behind. While he didn’t offer specifics on this plan, he said, “I don’t come at clean energy as a California hippie; I come at it as a business person,” who has been able to bring both sides together on this issue before.
Speeding up the process to get hurricane relief funding, however, would go a long way to immediately help those hit by storms, he said.
Hurricane Florence caused roughly $13 billion in damages to North Carolina. Currently, just $2 billion in aide has been approved by the state and Congress. And so far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has distributed $100 million to 128,000 affected families in North Carolina.
“It is just absurd that this money that people deserve is taking so long to get to them,” McCready said. “I actually think that Congress needs to launch an investigation. It needs to use its oversight responsibilities to figure out how to cut through the red tape, cut through the bureaucrats and get the money very, very quickly, into people’s hands.”
Running in a historically Republican district — one that stretches from Charlotte’s suburbs in the west to low-income communities in the east — means McCready is working hard to walk a bipartisan line.
Only the final Election Day result will indicate whether or not that approach resonated with voters. One recent survey, however, suggests it might. Following Florence, polling showed that Republicans and Democrats alike in North Carolina want elected officials to do more to tackle extreme weather. The poll also showed more people are concerned about climate change as a result of the storm, which was fueled by warmer than average waters.
“I think people are starting to realize that something’s changing,” McCready said. “The fact that we had two storms that are supposed to occur with the frequency of one-in-500 years or less, within two years, is hard to ignore.”
His opponent, however, is taking a different approach, crediting divine intervention with weakening the hurricane’s wind speeds. “I see the power of prayer and see God’s hand in that,” the New York Times reported Harris saying earlier this month.
Harris’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment from ThinkProgress.
Taking action to address climate change and protect the environment shouldn’t be a polarizing issue, McCready said. “The thing that’s always surprised me is why conserving the planet is not a conservative issue,” he said, pointing to a past legacy of Republicans from Teddy Roosevelt and the national parks to Richard Nixon and the Environmental Protection Agency. “I mean, it’s a conservative principle — if you think there’s a risk, hedge your bets and conserve the Earth.”
But it’s not just about increasingly severe storms. Temperatures continue to be warmer than normal across the Southeast well into the fall. On a crisp, sunny morning in Charlotte, McCready paused to point to the green trees outside and ask, “Where’s the color in the leaves?”
CORRECTION: This article previously attributed a quote about the GOP’s “rotten values” to Dan McCready. The comment was instead given by a spokesperson of a group supporting McCready.