While national pundits predict Republican challengers will steal seats from Democrats in Washington come November, Congressman Heath Shuler likely has little to worry about, based on a recent poll of registered voters in Jackson County.
Shuler, D-Waynesville, has a general approval rating of 46 percent, with 39 percent unfavorable and the remaining 15 percent undecided, according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll conducted by Public Policy Polling out of Raleigh in June.
The results sound merely mediocre for Shuler on the surface. But the poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters reveals a striking anomaly in who Shuler’s supporters are: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.
“That is rare,” said Chris Cooper, a WCU political scientist who developed the poll. “That is very, very rare that Republicans would feel as good about a Democrat as a Democrat does.”
Shuler seems to be in the perfect position given the district’s demographics, Cooper said. Shuler not only locks down the votes of conservative Democrats who would otherwise be quick to desert a more liberal candidate, he also snags part of the Republican vote.
And as for the liberal Democrats, he captures them too since they have nowhere else to turn.
“The Democrats don’t have a more liberal option, so they are probably still going to vote for him,” Cooper said.
Shuler’s approval rating was actually pulled down by those who identified themselves as liberal. The poll asked voters not only what party they were registered as, but also whether they considered themselves liberal, moderate or conservative. Only 30 percent of self-described liberals approved of Shuler. Conservative — even conservative Republicans — were more likely to approve of Shuler than liberals.
Shuler agrees he has strayed from the party on a few key votes. He voted against the stimulus bill and against the Wall Street and auto bailouts. But his vote against health care reform was likely the most upsetting to more liberal Democrats, Shuler said.
“You realize you can’t make everyone happy on every single vote you cast,” Shuler said. “I hope the votes I cast represent a large percentage of our district.”
Shuler may indeed mirror his constituents.
“It is a particular breed of Democrats we have in Western North Carolina,” Cooper said. “So many of our Democrats are conservative. I think the Democrats in Western North Carolina looks a lot like the Southern Democrat of 30 and 40 years ago.”
“Republicans from California could be more liberal than North Carolina Democrats,” Shuler said.
Shuler is the fifth most conservative Democrat in Congress and is the whip for the Blue Dog Democrats, a self-proclaimed group of 54 conservative Democrats who joined forces to form a moderate voting block in the House. The Blue Dogs are more than willing to break ranks with their party when push comes to shove.
Not exactly a sleeper race
Shuler’s opponent, Jeff Miller from Hendersonville, isn’t discouraged by the poll numbers, however. Shuler’s favorable rating was below 50 percent, which political experts say is a dangerous tipping point for incumbents — one that suggests the race is very much in play.
“I know as an incumbent I would not be comfortable with that. I would be worried and trying to do something about it,” Miller said.
Miller said voters this year in particular will be more likely to oust their sitting congressman and go for the challenger.
“This is pretty reflective of what you see around the country. I think there is a ‘get out of our house’ movement that wants to replace everyone,” Miller said. “People are very frustrated with the federal government.”
Indeed, the PPI/SMN poll of Jackson voters showed only 29 percent had a favorable opinion of the federal government. But given Shuler’s approval rating of 46 percent, they seem to distinguish between the two.
Miller’s campaign conducted a poll of its own the first week of June. The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Va., on behalf of Miller’s campaign, targeted only 300 voters in the 15-county district with a 5.6 percent margin of error. WCU’s poll surveyed more nearly 600 voters and had a 4 percent margin of error.
In Miller’s poll, Shuler had an approval rating of 53 percent — compared to 46 percent in the poll of only Jackson County voters.
Jackson County has a greater percentage of Democrats than the district as a whole, which should theoretically translate into a higher approval rating for Shuler in Jackson — not a lower one. Instead, the results offer further proof liberal Democrats actually pull his approval rating down.
While Shuler is busy pointing out his conservative votes, Miller is busy pointing out his opponent’s liberal ones. Miller rattled off several Democratic bills that Shuler supported: financial reform, pro-union legislation and cap and trade. And most importantly, says Miller, Shuler voted to give control of the House to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Mrs. Pelosi’s values I don’t think are our mountain values,” Miller said.
The poll conducted by Miller asked people who they plan to vote for: 46 percent said Shuler, 34 percent said Miller and 18 percent were undecided. Miller said that’s not bad, considering it was right after the primary and he doesn’t yet enjoy the name recognition that he will have by November. In fact, only 38 percent of those polled had heard of him.
Jumping ship harder than it seems
Dissatisfaction with Shuler among some Democrats led to a relatively poor showing for Shuler in the May primary — he pulled only 60 percent of the vote — especially considering he ran against a no-name opponent. Aixa Wilson did no campaigning to speak of and was largely unknown, with a name that left many voters wondering whether he was a man or a woman. Nonetheless, Wilson made an impressive showing and even carried Buncombe County over Shuler.
“It is easy to cast a protest vote when you know your candidate is going to win,” Cooper said.
It’s another matter when the seat is really on the line, Cooper said.
However, Miller said Democrats have told him personally they will vote for him instead of Shuler.
“I do believe some are going to jump ship,” Miller said.
But Shuler disagreed.
“They won’t jump ship,” Shuler said. “Even though they may not agree with my health care vote, they at least recognize I am the same person I said I was when I first ran for office.”
Shuler may not vote the way Democrats like all the time, but he at least votes their way more often than Miller would.
But Miller said he has heard firsthand from liberal Democrats who plan to vote against Shuler “out of anger for Shuler because he did not vote the way [they] wanted,” Miller said.
Miller said these voters are willing to sacrifice the seat to a Republican for now with the aim of running a more progressive candidate two years from now and claiming it back. Miller joked that he is never quite sure “whether to say thanks or not” when hearing from these voters.
Cooper is skeptical that many Democrats would be willing to sacrifice the seat for two years in hopes of winning it back in 2012 under the banner of a more liberal Democrat.
“I don’t think people vote that strategically. I think people talk that strategically, but I don’t know if they vote that strategically,” Cooper said.
There is one problem with a disenchanted base, however. Candidates rely on party loyalists to propel their campaigns, and Shuler may suffer in that area.
“Real party loyalists are less likely to be excited about Shuler, put a yard sign up for Shuler, tell their friend about Shuler,” Cooper said.
Shuler explains his more conservative leanings as simply rising above party politics.
“Far too often we are seeing the extreme on both sides get most of the talking points, but I feel like I am the person in the middle trying to be a conduit saying, ‘Here is the middle ground folks,’” Shuler said. “It is more about the individual that you are actually voting for and less about the party.”
Cooper said a scandal is likely the only thing that could compromise Shuler’s favorable rating in the short time span between now and the election.
“Save some kind of John Edwards situation, he is looking pretty good,” Cooper said.