Outgoing Congressman Heath Shuler hopes to pass the torch to his own chief of staff, a like-minded, conservative Democrat who is rapidly being embraced by the party establishment as a replacement for Shuler on the ballot come November.
Hayden Rogers, native of Robbinsville and longtime chief of staff to Shuler, announced his candidacy last Wednesday — one week after Shuler declared that he would not seek re-election.
“He would be an extremely strong candidate,” Shuler said, quick to offer an endorsement of Rogers. “My theory has always been I wanted to surround myself with the best and brightest.”
Shuler said Rogers is “very, very smart” and already known and well-respected by the other members of Congress, giving him a leg up when it comes to serving the district should he win.
Rogers said his decision to run comes from a desire to continue the work he and Shuler have started.
“It stemmed from much of my experience with Heath and the enjoyment and pleasure we have gotten from working for the people of Western North Carolina,” Rogers said. “That is what I would like to continue to do.”
Similar to Shuler, Rogers, who now lives in the Murphy area with his wife and daughters, played football in high school in Graham County. He grew up hunting squirrels and fishing in the mountains with his grandfather, yet went on to major in political science at Princeton, where he also played football. Prior to working for Shuler, he owned his own wholesale nursery and landscaping business.
Rogers said that like Shuler, he will work with people from across party lines and will not pout and whine if he does not get his way.
“I think we’ve got plenty who do that now,” he said.
In the primary, Rogers will face competition from Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville city councilman, who planned to run even before Shuler stepped down. After Shuler announced he was bowing out, Bothwell issued a press release proclaiming himself the “frontrunner” for the Democratic nomination.
“Apparently, Cecil Bothwell is the frontrunner. I read that he said that somewhere,” Rogers said wryly. “I will do the best I can to catch up.”
With his more conservative stance, Rogers has a better chance of pulling out a victory in November than the comparatively liberal Bothwell, according to political observers.
“I am more consistent with the views of this district than probably Mr. Bothwell will be,” Rogers said, citing his affiliation as a Blue Dog Democrat like Shuler.
Rogers declined to say how much he has raised during his first week of campaigning.
“I certainly will have a well-funded campaign and a well-run campaign,” Rogers said.
The seasoned campaign veteran already has a couple of paid staff members, including Shuler’s former communication officer Andrew Whalen, and two-dozen active volunteers.
“Just getting out there. I started that now. (But), I am not starting at scratch,” he said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Shuler’s endorsement is what may take Rogers the furthest.
Shuler brought Rogers on as his campaign manager in his first bid for office in 2006 after firing his first campaign manager.
“I wanted people who weren’t yes people. I wanted people who were straight forward and honest who could make me a better candidate and better member of Congress,” Shuler said.
Shuler credits Rogers with helping pull off his win over longtime incumbent Charles Taylor six years ago, despite everyone being novices.
“Consider this: we ran against a 16-year incumbent with all the money in the world and we didn’t have one person who had ever been involved in a campaign before except one, and he had never won one,” Shuler reflected.
Rogers will face at least two other opponents during the Democratic primary. In addition to Bothwell, two lesser-known candidates have announced they will run: Heath Wynn of Caldwell County and Tom Hill of Henderson County.
Wynn was a teacher in the sociology department at Catawba Valley Community College.
Despite his limited name recognition and his significantly smaller war chest, Cecil Bothwell is confident he can outrun U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler during next May’s primary race for the 11th Congressional District’s Democratic nomination.
“I would not be doing it if I did not intend to win,” said Bothwell, a city councilman and former newspaper reporter in Asheville.
Bothwell and Shuler are at opposite ends of the Democratic spectrum, with Bothwell in the liberal corner and Shuler in the more conservative camp. Should Bothwell make it past the primary, however, he is not concerned about how his liberal leanings or Asheville ties will play with the region’s rural and historically conservative mountain voters.
“I think I am more likely to win in November than he is,” Bothwell said.
In past elections, Shuler, D-Waynesville, has demonstrated an ability to curry favor with voters from both political parties.
A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an astonishing anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.
Shuler said Bothwell would be unlikely to pick up the necessary independent or conservative voters in a general election.
“They won’t get any support from the other side on any issue they have,” Shuler said.
Bothwell originally planned to run as an independent but found the requirements to get his name on the ballot overwhelming.
“When I began to explore the possibility, it turned out I would need to collect something close to 20,000 verified signatures,” Bothwell said.
Bothwell added it would be “very, very difficult to win” with three candidates vying for the position.
Bothwell decided to run against Shuler in March after the three-term congressman voted against key bills in the national Democratic agenda: namely health care reform and the federal stimulus bill.
“I decided somebody had to run against him,” Bothwell said.
Name recognition could be Bothwell’s biggest challenge if he hopes to defeat Shuler, said Chris Cooper, a political science professor from Western Carolina University.
“I think that is a major reason why incumbents win,” Cooper said.
As a former editor at the Mountain Xpress and member of the Asheville City Council, Bothwell is known in Buncombe County. However, it is unknown how many voters outside of Asheville recognize Bothwell as compared to Shuler — an incumbent and revered football hero.
Last election, however, a relatively unknown candidate from Asheville pulled down nearly 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and carried Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.
Shuler’s conservative stance helps him during the general election but drags down his primary numbers. Democratic voters punished Shuler during the last primary for not being liberal enough.
The fact that a “newcomer to politics” received such as large percent of the votes “indicates widespread dissatisfaction” among 11th District Democrats, Bothwell said.
But, the same dip in poll numbers did not hold true in the general election.
Shuler handily won re-election by more than 20,000 votes in 2010 against Republican Jeff Miller of Hendersonville.
“We went through the most difficult election in history for Democrats, and we still won by 10 percent,” Shuler said. “We feel very good.”
But, the primary race could also force Shuler, who has received flack for his not-always-party-line voting record, to prove he is a Democrat by taking a leftist standpoint, Cooper said.
And, that could come back to bite him in the general election.
“In some ways, the best thing for the Republican Party is for Cecil Bothwell to do well,” Cooper said.
While Bothwell has already started his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Shuler said he does not expect to spend much time or money running a primary race.
“Campaign mode does not kick in til August,” Shuler said.
Until then, Shuler said he will continue to do what he was elected to do — work.
“You still have to focus on the job at hand,” Shuler said. “Being placed on the budget committee … takes priority over fundraising.”
Shuler said he thinks the new district make-up gives him an advantage over the more liberal Bothwell now that Asheville, a traditionally liberal sect of voters, has been cut out.
Shuler said the district has “a Blue Dog type make-up,” referring to the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats in Washington that Shuler heads.
Come Election Day, Bothwell won’t be able to vote for himself.
Although he is still legally allowed to run for its congressional seat, Bothwell no longer lives in the district he hopes to represent.
Every 10 years, the lines for Congressional districts are redrawn following the national census, to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of voters.
The re-organization of the 11th District added several Republican-leaning counties and carved out Asheville’s liberal voters.
Now, the district is 38 percent registered Republicans and only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, a possibly election-making difference when compared to the 43 percent who were registered Democrats before the re-organization. That means the general election could be decided by the 26 percent of unaffiliated voters that making up the remaining portion.
Meanwhile, Asheville was shunted into the 10th Congressional district, which is already a Republican stronghold and could absorb Asheville’s Democratic voting bloc without tipping the scales.
Bothwell chose not to run in the 10th District, which reaches from the foothills to the outskirts of Charlotte, because he does not agree with how the state’s congressional districts were redrawn. State law does not require a candidate to live in the Congressional district he represents.
“The fact that the headstrong Republican idiots in Raleigh have temporarily tried to move Asheville into the Piedmont is laughable,” Bothwell said.
Bothwell still considers himself a resident of the 11th Congressional District even though the maps say otherwise. He hopes it won’t be the case for long.
“I will do all I can to speed the redrawing of district maps to reflect reality. In the meantime, I aim to represent my people, the people of the western counties, in Washington,” Bothwell said.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face one of at least eight Republican candidates that have joined the race. The Republican candidate will face slightly better odds this election as a result of the re-organization of the congressional district.
To carve Asheville out of the 11th Congressional District is completely irrational.
My campaign will work with all Western North Carolina Democrats to fight this gerrymandering. We’ll oppose it on every level. We look forward to supporting a united legal challenge. And, I urge Re. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, to join us in this.
Asheville is, after all, the economic hub of this region with 40,000 daily commuters who follow the river valleys to work each morning. Asheville is the medical center for the region for the same reason: rapid transportation can be a matter of life and death. Asheville is the legal nexus as well, with its Federal Courthouse serving all of the western counties and is also the banking and business core of the region.
More compelling is the fact that fully one third of the residents of WNC live in Buncombe County!
The French Broad River inexorably links Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe and Madison counties. The economic ties of our region are all a function of our mountain watersheds. The Land of Sky Regional Council, which includes those four counties, is not an artificial consruct — it is a planning district dictated by geographic reality. Our railroads and highways follow the river valleys due to geographic necessity as well.
By jamming Asheville into the 10th Congressional District, and adding Avery, Burke, Caldwell, Mitchell and Wautauga counties to the 11th, the Raleigh Republicans have removed the region’s media center, the source for the news that lets people see what government is doing in order to cast intelligent votes.
For voters in those north-central counties, Winston-Salem and Charlotte are the major media sources, while Morganton and Hickory are the closest economic centers. Meanwhile, Asheville’s news media will suddenly be reporting on congressional news related to Gastonia, which is clearly a part of the greater Charlotte metropolitan area.
The GOP can pat itself on the back, believing that its cookie-cutter tomfoolery is long deserved payback for past Democratic sins, but what they’re doing is showing us that all they care about is power — not the people of our state. They don’t want the people of WNC to have a representative in Washington who stands up for our regional interests. That should be a matter of concern to Republicans and Democrats alike in these mountains. They don’t want us to have a champion in Congress who will fight for our jobs, our health and our lives.
Of course, their stated goal is to create another “safe” Republican seat in the 11th District. But contemplating that outcome should also be extremely unsettling to WNC voters.
Republicans have long been trying to scuttle Social Security and Medicare. They are the same people who brought us NAFTA, CAFTA and WTO deals with China — sending our jobs out of the country. The Republicans’ apparent overarching goal is to divert American wealth to the wealthiest, while middle class workers in WNC lose their jobs, their homes and their health care.
This is the time for us to unite as Democrats — blue dog, yellow dog, middle of the road. We are share one common bond — we are Mountain Democrats!
Let’s show Raleigh Republicans that we may vary in our political opinions, but when our home turf is threatened we come together to defend our mountain homes.
I feel that challenging these maps constitutes an absolute obligation to my constituents, both as an Asheville City Council member and as a candidate in the 11th Congressional District. These western mountains are my home, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
(Cecil Bothwell is an Asheville city councilman and a Democratic candidate for the 11th Congressional District seat now held by Rep. Heath Shuler. The proposed redistricting map released last week would take Asheville out of Shuler’s 11th District.)