The race for the Congressional seat representing Western North Carolina was flipped on its head last week when incumbent U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, announced he would not seek re-election this year — leaving no heir apparent within his party.
“It is somewhat difficult for the Democrats to find someone at this late date to run,” said Tommy Jenkins, former Democratic state senator and state representative in Macon County. “The Republican candidates, some of them, have been out there campaigning for a year.”
The Republican side of the race was already overcrowded with at least eight people declaring that they will run. But now, with Shuler out of the picture, the election is anyone’s game.
“(Shuler’s decision) changes everything,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
The Republican primary was already hotly contested, and that won’t change, according to Jeff Hunt, a Republican candidate from Brevard. But the Republican nominee will no longer have to do battle with Shuler come the general election.
“It makes November a different ball game,” said Hunt.
The lack of a frontrunner for the Democratic Party could mean that the seat falls under Republican control.
“Shuler is the one Democrat in my mind who had a chance,” Cooper said. “One, he was extremely moderate. Two, he has the name recognition. Three, he had a fundraising advantage.”
Even if Shuler betroths his war chest to a candidate who is Shuler-esque in their political views, they still won’t have the name recognition that Shuler did — not given his football stardom on top of Congressman status.
While a replacement Democrat might be coming from behind in the name recognition field, so are all the Republican challengers, Shuler pointed out.
“The Republican candidates, no one has ever heard of them at all,” Shuler said.
Thus far, Asheville resident Cecil Bothwell is the only Democrat to officially declare his candidacy. He was already planning to run in the Democratic Primary against Shuler. Bothwell is considerably more liberal than Shuler, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, and faces overwhelming odds in a historically conservative district.
“I don’t understand how Bothwell has much of a chance here,” Cooper said.
Despite this, with Shuler out of the running, Bothwell said he is confident that he will compete in November’s election.
“That is good news for the campaign,” he said. “I look forward to being the nominee of the Democratic Party for Congress in 11th District.”
But, a wide-open seat could draw a number of potential candidates out of the woodwork before the candidate filing period closes at the end of the month.
So far, however, Shuler’s Chief of Staff Hayden Rogers is the only Democrat to say he is considering a run for Shuler’s seat. (See related article)
Despite a relative lack of name recognition, Rogers is a conservative Democrat and could potentially garner votes from across the political spectrum similar to Shuler.
A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.
The Democratic nominee — no matter who it is — will have a tough battle ahead in the November election.
“Of course the election will be difficult. It’s always difficult,” said Luke Hyde, head of the Democratic Party in the 11th District. But, “We expect to win in the fall.”
But the 11th-hour bomb dropped by Shuler hasn’t done his party any favors.
“I think he’s done a tremendous injustice to the Democrats for announcing so late,” said Ralph Slaughter, Jackson County GOP chair. “This assures (Republicans) of a victory in 2012.”
Last year, the state reshuffled the 11th District, cutting the liberal-concentrated Asheville out of the district and stirring in four Republican-leaning counties. Now, only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, compared to 43 percent prior to the redistricting.
“This Republican redistricting was masterful,” Cooper said. “It is shocking at how good a job they did to take a state that was about 50-50 Democrat Republican and draw districts that will result in a state with about three Democrats in (U.S.) Congress.”
However, the district is still home to a decent bloc of unaffiliated voters who could sway the election either way.
“You never take for granted that a Republican is going to win even if it has been redrawn,” Hunt said.
The head of the district’s Republican Party said that Shuler bowing out of the competition does not ensure a Republican victory. However, it does improve the odds.
“That fact that it is an open seat rather than an incumbent … can’t help but encourage the Republicans,” said Dave Sawyer, an attorney from Bryson City. “I think we are more optimistic about being able to do so now.”
Mark Meadows, a Republican candidate from Jackson County, agreed with Sawyer.
It would be a “great mistake” to think the election is a cinch now, Meadows said. However, “You look at it as a much easier campaign.”
One obstacle that still faces Republicans is the current size of its candidate pool.
“I think the field right now is extremely large,” Meadows said.
At least eight Republicans are currently battling for the nomination, and the party will need to narrow the field and focus on beefing up the profile of a few candidates.
Shuler is not the only prominent Democrat from North Carolina who decided to retire this year.
Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue announced in late January that she would not seek re-election. Perdue served only one-term as governor, but it was plagued by battles with the Republican-controlled state legislature.
And, just a month prior, long-time N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, divulged that his 14-year stint in politics would come to an end this year. The nearly 76-year-old state representative decided to retire to spend more time with his grandchildren and possibly travel.
These retirements leave their vacant positions in limbo.
“It is not a good sign for the Democratic party in North Carolina,” Cooper said. The state is shifting from the “old solid democratic South” to “a state dominated by the Republican party.”
In the case of the governor’s race, there is no standout candidate or frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, whereas Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, seems the natural choice for the Republican Party. McCrory made a good showing during the last gubernatorial race against Perdue.
“I would be very surprised if the Democrats pulled out a victory in the governor’s mansion in November,” Cooper said.