Republicans hope 2010 will be their year to reclaim the congressional seat representing Western North Carolina — a seat they had long held but was wrested away in 2006 by political newcomer and football star Heath Shuler.
Whoever wins the Republican primary for the 11th Congressional District, however, will have their work cut out for them.
“This is not going to be a cake walk for anybody,” said Jake Howard, a candidate from Franklin.
While Democrats are vulnerable on the national stage, Shuler isn’t exactly a raging liberal, much to the chagrin of die-hard Democrats in the district. He’s good looking, a family man, and a devout Christian. People line up for his autograph when he makes public appearances — due more to his football fame than status as congressman
Money will be a major factor in the race against Shuler. Shuler has lots of it, and none of the Republican candidates in the running have a hope of matching it. The big question is how much money the national Republican Party will funnel to Shuler’s opponent.
“I think no matter who our primary voters elect we are going to see the national Republican Party here,” said Robert Danos, the chairman of the Henderson County Republican Party and a Shuler critic.
But Republicans have their eye on taking back many seats in 2010, so competition for national financial backing will be stiff.
“I think the Republican Party will focus first on open seats,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
Shuler’s seat would likely be a close second in line, however.
“Shuler is a vulnerable Democrat in a district that has shown it will vote for Republicans, so after putting money into open seats, this will be one of the races they look to — especially if the nominee is a candidate the national party thinks will do well,” Cooper said.
The Republican challengers are downplaying the importance of funding in this year’s election.
“It will be incumbent on whoever wins to raise a lot of money, but money alone is not going to do it this year,” said Greg Newman, a candidate from Hendersonville. “The message this year is going to be more important than ever before.”
Fellow candidate Jeff Miller agrees to a point.
“It doesn’t mean you can go in there with $100,0000 and beat Heath Shuler. He is going to dominate airwaves and he is going to dominate mailings,” Miller said.
Only two candidates have paid campaign staffs at this point. Miller and Dan Eichenbaum, who each have three paid staff.
Shuler is not only a multi-millionaire, but has also already amassed a formidable war chest. He had $1.27 million in the hopper as of January before his main fundraising push has even started.
In 2008, Shuler raised $1.67 million but spent less than $800,000 against a comparatively weak opponent in Carl Mumpower.
Republicans are holding out hope that a national tide will carry them to victory against Shuler.
“I think he is going to be very vulnerable precisely because this election, just like congressional elections across the country, is going to be much more about the national issues than just ‘Do you like the guy,’” said Danos.
But whether the country is headed for a Republican landslide this year that will hurt Shuler is unpredictable for now.
“I think this is definitely going to be a better year for Republicans than it is for Democrats,” Cooper said. “That said, I think where we are really going to see that is with the open seats. Shuler is an incumbent, and for incumbents to lose they pretty much have to shoot themselves in the foot during the election.”
Not just any candidate can ride a Republican tide to defeat Shuler, Miller said.
“I think you are going to have to have the right person,” Miller said.
All candidates agreed on that point, although opinions obviously vary on who that “right” candidate is.
“This race is all about who can beat Shuler,” said Jake Howard, a candidate from Franklin. “If the Republican voters send a neophyte up against Heath Shuler he will eat their lunch.”
The most electable candidate in a general election doesn’t always emerge as the top vote-getter in a primary.
“Only a fraction of the voters are going to get to the polls,” Howard said. “So it is so easy to select the wrong candidate.”
Both years Shuler won — in 2006 and 2008 — were generally good years for Democrats.
“Many people, including a number of Republicans, were angry about things the Bush Administration did a poor job of managing,” Danos said. “But now they see turning the keys over to Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama is much further to the left than many people who voted for Obama expected.”
Painting Shuler into the same corner as Pelosi and Obama is clearly part of the Republican strategy, but it might not be that easy. Shuler voted against the Wall Street bailout, against the auto bailout, against the stimulus bill and against the health care bill.
But Danos said as long as Shuler votes for Pelosi each year to serve as Speaker of the House, he is handing the agenda over to liberal Democrats.
“Shuler talks a good game at home of being a conservative,” Danos said. But in reality, he isn’t as conservative as he makes out to be, Danos said.
Nonetheless, many Democrats are angry with Shuler for being part of the Blue Dog caucus — a band of conservative Democrats who often vote as their own block.
But Cooper doubts that liberal Democrats will be angry enough to vote against Shuler.
“He will still be a better Democrat than a Republican will be,” Cooper said.
It would be too risky for Democrats to oust Shuler and sacrifice the seat to a Republican in the short term in hopes of getting a “real” Democrat to take the seat back two years from now, Cooper said.
“I think people aren’t willing to roll the dice that much,” Cooper said. “I think at the end of the day people vote for the candidate that holds the package of beliefs that are closest to them.”
Six months is a long time in American politics, and no one can predict if the Republican fury will fade or sustain itself. But Dan Eichenbaum, a primary candidate from Murphy, said the movement isn’t going away.
“The direction our country is going is so abhorrent to so many people,” Eichenbaum said.
Eichenbaum is a self-described Tea Party activist.
“I have been rolling up shirtsleeves and getting out my check book since last spring,” Eichenbaum said.
Candidates that cater to purist Republican ideals like Eichenbaum may resonate well in a primary. But the right-leaning base that dominates the polls in the primary may select a candidate that is less electable come the general election.
“In the primary you have to talk to the right, then in the general election move to the center,” said Ed Krause, a candidate from Marion.
But Eichenbaum said he refuses to compromise on his principles to win votes based on his audience.
“That’s what got us in this mess in the first place,” said Eichenbaum, who was at one time a registered Libertarian.
Eichenbaum is one of the leading contenders in the primary. But so is Jeff Miller, who is far more moderate.
Miller doesn’t engage in the level of Democrat bashing that has endeared Eichenbaum to his base.
“We all have a piece of this together,” Miller said of the national crisis.
Miller said his platform will make him a more viable opponent against Shuler come November.
“You have to decide what is going to play the best. The unaffiliated voter is huge in this district,” Miller said.
Especially if winning the general election could require wooing Democrats to break ranks.
“You can’t ignore this Tea Party movement. But I think in the end the established Republican is going to get the nomination and will get the most support from the national party and the voters of the 11th district,” Cooper said.
Until now, the candidates are largely unknown except within their own counties. No one had true regional name recognition going into the race.
In a territory that spans 15 counties, candidates find themselves criss-crossing Western North Carolina several times a week in the final throws of primary season.
“It is very challenging,” Krause said. “My dogs don’t know who I am.”
Kenny West, who lives in Hayesville, has a long haul to get just about anywhere. He has been averaging 1,700 miles a week campaigning lately.
Newman said candidate forums and debates have been well attended.
“As opposed to a lot of primary election cycles people are very engaged about this particular election,” Newman said. “I believe it is symptomatic of how people feel about the country right now.”