Former NFL quarterback and political newcomer Heath Shuler, 34, scored the big win over eight-term incumbent Republican Charles Taylor on election night in the most closely watched races in Western North Carolina.
At just after 2 a.m., the state Board of Elections had Shuler leading the race 123,156 to 105,935.
Taylor, 65, conceded the race to his Democratic challenger about three hours after polls had closed and election results showed Shuler with a sizable lead with about half the district’s precincts reporting. For the first time in nearly two decades, the 11th District will have a new face in Washington, and Shuler’s win was part of the victory that gave Democrats a majority in the House of Representatives along with wins in key states around the country.
Just minutes after Taylor’s announcement at his campaign gathering at the Holiday Inn in Asheville, Shuler came down from his downtown Asheville Renaissance Hotel room with his wife and children. Entering a ballroom to several hundred cheering fans, Shuler, with 2-year-old daughter Island in one arm, gave hugs and handshakes to campaign supporters, family members and staff.
And yes, before he came in, the crowd sang and clapped to “Rocky Top,” the fight song for the University of Tennessee, Shuler’s alma mater.
“We did it!” said Hayden Rogers, campaign manager for Shuler, as he pumped both fists. “What a time for a rookie.”
“I hear we have a new sheriff in town,” announced Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy. And she wasn’t just talking about the newly elected Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan, who defeated incumbent Bobby Medford.
Then it was Shuler’s turn to speak.
“As always I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Shuler said.
Overwhelmed by the emotion of the night, Shuler began by thanking his family and campaign staff for a long, hard fight.
“It’s an exciting time for the people of Western North Carolina,” Shuler said. “Our country deserves better. We’re going to get there.”
Echoing his mantra of bringing mountain values to Washington, Shuler pledged to work to improve health care, bring jobs to the district and protect the mountains.
“I know all of you have heard the stump speech, so I certainly won’t give it again,” he said.
Avoiding the urge to use a sports analogy, Shuler, a former quarterback and runner up for the Heisman Trophy, stressed teamwork and togetherness, eschewing the partisan politics that traditionally divide Congress. Shuler also congratulated Taylor and his family for a hard-fought campaign.
Shuler’s father, Joe Benny, has seen Heath through high school championship games and on to college and NFL games, but nothing proved so nerve-wracking as waiting on the election results. Shuler left the NFL when injuries shortened his career with the Washington Redskins, and now the former quarterback returns again to that same city for a new career.
“He’ll do exactly what he’s been saying, bringing mountain values to Western North Carolina,” Benny said. “He’ll do the right thing when he gets there.”
An hour earlier at Taylor’s election night headquarters at the Holiday Inn across town, the mood was much more subdued. Voting returns showed Shuler had an early lead, but supporters hoped for the best, watching election results on a large projector screen. Red, white and blue balloons bobbed as faces frowned, seeing Democrats claim victories in the House, Senate and gubernatorial races around the country. Early returns showed Taylor behind in his own home county, Transylvania. Taylor’s campaign spokesman Aaron Latham said it was too early to tell the outcome.
For the past week, Taylor had been meeting with constituents, holding tele-town hall meetings on conference calls, and going door-to-door meeting voters in the district.
“It’s a simple strategy,” Latham said. “Talk with voters. Tell them about your record and shoot ‘em straight.”
But like a crowd that exits early from a stadium, knowing the home team will not win, some Taylor supporters were already beginning to carry the look of disappointment.
Harry Maroni, a Fairview resident, was already conceding Shuler’s early lead as a victory.
“We really don’t know where Shuler stands on these issues because he has no record,” said Maroni. Though an acknowledged Democrat, he supported Taylor but said some Republicans have gotten away from their traditional core values like fiscal responsibility.