By Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts
A creature once roamed the American South that many now presume to be endangered if not extinct — the conservative Democrat. For nearly a century following the Civil War, almost all white southerners were conservative Democrats. As late as 1978, more than a third of all Democrats in the South were conservatives. In most parts of the South today, however, finding a conservative Democrat is about as likely as spotting a bald eagle — they do exist but they are hard to find.
A recent survey conducted by the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News, however, suggests that Jackson County resembles a refuge for conservative Democrats. Today almost as many Democrats in Jackson County identify as conservatives as liberals (23 percent compared to 30 percent — the remainder are moderates). These numbers are even more striking when compared to an analysis of Republicans in the county. Two-thirds of Republicans in the WCU PPI/SMN poll claim to be conservatives, compared to less than 4 percent who are self-proclaimed liberals. The message is clear: Democrats do not mind being called conservatives, but almost no Republicans in our county want to be called liberal.
So what does this mean for political candidates in Jackson County? First — it pays to be a Democrat. Results of the survey as well as analysis of voter registration records in Jackson County clearly indicate that there are many more Democrats than Republicans residing in the county. In the WCU PPI/SMN survey, 45 percent of the respondents claim to be Democrats, compared to 32 percent who identify as independents and 24 percent who consider themselves Republicans. The actual voter registration numbers are identical for Democrats, but indicate slightly higher percentage of registered Republicans.
Despite these positive numbers for Democrats, aspiring politicians in this county who align themselves with the Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid wing of the Democratic Party will find little support. Nationally, Republicans tend to be conservative, and Democrats are most often liberal. As we suggested above, however, few Democrats in this county consider themselves liberals. Most are moderates, and almost a quarter are conservatives. Among members of all parties, only 18 percent are liberals, compared to 42 percent who are moderates and 40 percent who are conservatives.
Given these trends, it is perhaps not surprising that more than half of the respondents in the WCU PPI/SMN survey who expressed an opinion on Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler hold a favorable view of him (54 percent favorable, compared to 46 percent unfavorable). Shuler has distanced himself from the Pelosi/Reid wing of the Democratic Party by casting votes against the healthcare plan and the stimulus package.
In fact, an independent analysis of roll-call votes in the House by political scientist Keith Poole finds that Shuler is the fifth most conservative Democrat in the House. Perhaps as a result, further analyses of Jackson County survey data reveal that Democrats are no more likely to approve of Shuler than Republicans, and conservatives are more likely to support him than liberals. This trend is most evident at the extremes where twice as many conservative Republicans as liberal Democrats approve of Shuler (60 percent to 30 percent).
All of this portends well for Shuler this fall, at least in this county. Sure he is not popular with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but fortunately for Shuler, this is a fairly small part of the Jackson County electorate. Moderate and conservative voters of both parties as well as independents approve of Shuler in fairly high numbers. A lot can happen between now and November, but Heath Shuler can probably rest fairly comfortably in the conservative Democratic refuge of Jackson County.
Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts are both Associate Professors of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University where Knotts also serves as Department Head and Cooper directs the Public Policy Institute.
He was endorsed by the Family Research Council for his pro-life stance and by the NRA for his support of the Ssecond Amendment. He championed an act for more border security, chaired the national prayer breakfast, and voted against the auto bailout, the Wall Street bailout, and the stimulus bill.
Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, isn’t a Republican, though these recent votes and endorsements might cause one to assume otherwise. In his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Swain County native Heath Shuler has earned the accolade of fourth least likely to vote in line with his party, according to the Washington Post.
Shuler has never kept his conservative leanings a secret. But the extent to which he votes against his party has taken some off guard.
“I expected him to be more of a Democrat than he seems to be,” said Jane Allison, a Swain County Democrat who called Shuler’s office to voice her disagreement with his stimulus vote.
Others say the Democratically-controlled Congress has allowed Shuler the freedom to vote against his party with more frequency than ever. Since Shuler is in a conservative leaning district, he’s able to score points for his stance with consituents back home without jeapordizing the Democratic Party’s agenda.
“My take is that it’s a Democratically controlled House right now, and he seems himself as basically having the leeway to vote against his party in order to tag himself with our more conservative voters,” said Mary Alice Lamb, a Haywood County Democrat. “You can fight your own party — that’s fine — as long as it’s in line with what your constituents tell you to believe.”
Jeff Israel, a Canton Democrat, is willing to cut Shuler a little more slack on his votes. Given the demographics of the mountain region, it’s fairly remarkable that a Democrat like Shuler won a Congressional seat at all — particularly one held by a Republican incumbent for 16 years.
“We had other candidates that I felt like were really qualified, but none of them could quite make it across the finish line like Heath could,” Israel said.
According to Israel, Shuler is able to walk a “political tight wire” between democratic populism and the conservative beliefs of rural voters.
“You’re not going to get anybody that follows the Democratic party line right down the middle elected here,” agreed David Hall of Waynesville, a lifelong Democrat who changed his party affiliation to independent in recent years. “The Democrats here are not your far left liberal — they’re not for abortion; they own guns. We’re a different breed of Democrat.”
As testament to the “different breed” idea, Shuler won the 11th Congressional District in the last election by a landslide — but every county except Buncombe and Jackson voted for John McCain in the presidential race.
Not surprisingly, Shuler garners support from a number of Republicans as well. He was the first candidate in years able to do so, said Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a Republican.
“The district is conservative, and when I was watching the Democrats fill the candidates, they’d get these liberals from Asheville and Hendersonville,” Ensley said. “When they got a conservative Democrat, I knew they’d do real well.”
Ensley finds that many of his views are in line with Shuler’s, though the two men are of different party affiliations.
“I rarely disagree with him,” Ensley said. “Overall, he’s pretty well voted the way I would probably vote if I was up there.”
Harold Corbin, the former GOP district chair in Macon County, said he disagrees with the views of the current Congressional leadership, but Shuler is an exception.
“I think he represents the 11th District well,” Corbin said. “He falls in line with the values of voters.”
Shuler’s views fit with those of his mostly rural constituent base, said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
“Shuler’s views fit pretty well with many of the rural areas of the district, though his views probably differ considerably from some of the urban areas,” Knotts said.
To those who question his voting record, Shuler points out the difficult balance he must strike in a district that houses polar opposite viewpoints.
“There are some people that are just hardline-based party,” Shuler said. “What I would encourage them to do is get out and let’s go to Madison, Yancey, Clay, and Graham, and be able to see I represent 15 counties, not an isolated group.”
It’s commonly argued that Shuler’s conservative votes aren’t the result of a political agenda — rather, they come out of his core belief system developed in the rural mountains where he grew up.
“He has the same moral compass that most of the people around here have,” Israel said.
Shuler keeps two paintings in his Washington, D.C. office — one of Swain, where he was born and bred, and one of Haywood County, where he resides now with his wife and two kids. He says the scenes help to remind him of where he’s from and the moral foundation he adopted growing up in rural Appalachia.
“The most important thing is to be true to who you are, and what your beliefs are, and don’t change based upon influence,” Shuler says.
So far, Shuler hasn’t risked much by continuing to vote out of line with his party.
“I think he’s a smart politician,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at WCU. “He knows it would be hard for him to move so far to the right that the Democrats would choose to vote for a Republican. It’s not a very big gamble.”
But times are changing, particularly in Congress. Some say leaders aren’t going to overlook Shuler’s votes against his party forever.
“It was cute when the Democrats weren’t going to get anything passed anyway,” said Alison, but not anymore.
Traditionally, many Democrats from the South differentiate themselves from the national Democratic party, said Knotts. But it isn’t always a risk-free venture.
“(Shuler) has to be careful voting against a popular president,” Knotts said. “He also has to be careful that he does not upset the Democratic leadership too much. The leadership can withhold resources and make it more difficult for Shuler to advance his agenda.”
Cooper suggests some things voters can watch for.
“Is he not able to curry favor with Democratic leadership in the House?” Cooper said. “I think that’s the kind of thing that people should be watching out for — things like, does he get good committee assignments?”
Shuler has never been completely in line with the leaders of his party in Washington. Early in his first term, Shuler sought to align himself with the Blue Dogs, a coalition of conservative Democrats. The group was viewed as a force to reckon with, as their voting bloc could make or break the passage of a bill in Congress.
But Shuler’s Blue Dog affiliation doesn’t always excuse his conservative votes in the eyes of party leaders.
Earlier this month, the Washington-based newspaper Politico wrote that Shuler was No. 1 on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “bad list” due to his vote against the bailout package and telling a Raleigh audience that House leaders “failed.”
The newspaper reported that Pelosi felt Shuler’s motives were political as much as ideological, and that Shuler was positioning himself for a Senate run against incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). Buzz about a possible Shuler Senate run had circulated for months, but on March 9, Shuler formally announced he would not seek the seat.
But as Israel points out, ultimately, “it’s not the Democrats in Washington that get Heath elected — Heath gets himself elected on his own merits.”
Voters in Western North Carolina won’t necessarily continue to vote for a Democrat as right-leaning as Shuler, said Lamb.
“I think that a lot of conservative younger folks will move to the cities to find jobs, and the older conservative generation will be dying off,” Lamb said. “I think you’re going to see, with Asheville being the hub that it is, the district as a whole tipping. We can’t vote in a more progressive Democrat right now, but give us another five to 10 years. Heath Shuler should be concerned — don’t get too comfortable voting conservative.”
Israel agrees on some points. “Change is a constant in politics,” he says, and adds that the district will change. But, he says, Shuler is young enough that he’s flexible, and will be able to change with the district.
Plus, Israel says Shuler is the best bet to win if the tides turn back in favor of the Republicans.
“Eventually, the Republicans will get their act together,” he says. “If you got someone in office that was maybe a little more left leaning than Heath when Republicans had high tide years, they would be swept out of office. I think Heath is the type of candidate who could weather that storm.”