It’s the biggest word in politics, often setting off a firestorm when delivered at a crucial moment. Gov. Beverly Perdue’s “no” to a re-election bid started an avalanche across the state from which the fallout still hasn’t ended. Here in the mountain west, Rep. Heath Shuler delivered a second surprising “no” when he said he wouldn’t seek re-election.
Shuler’s decision was a gut check for mountain Democrats. The district had already been re-drawn by GOP leaders in Raleigh so that even the extremely conservative Shuler would have struggled to win against a viable Republican opponent. The newly re-drawn district would have only voted 40 percent for Barack Obama in the 2008 election. For the GOP, fielding a candidate who could have taken on the ex-NFL quarterback whose political star was still rising became a free-for-all even before Shuler’s announcement. I’ve lost count, but it’s somewhere around eight candidates who are saying they will run in the primary, which means second runoff primary is almost inevitable. The primary is May 8, and the filing period ends on Feb. 29.
Shuler’s chief of staff, Hayden Rogers, is gaining momentum as the heir apparent for Democrats, but one can only wonder how that will play with Democratic leaders in this district who have been chafing with Shuler as their congressman. There are many in leadership positions that never embraced Shuler’s conservative ideology. Name your position — abortion, health care, stimulus package, even gun control — many, if not most, Democratic leaders wanted a representative who was more in line with their positions. It is assumed that Rogers, a Robbinsville native and Princeton graduate, will embrace the same political centrist positions as Shuler. Some have whispered that Rogers may be more conservative than Shuler.
I don’t know Shuler personally but was able to observe first-hand his political transformation. Early in his first campaign, his speeches were not delivered well and lacked substance. He was not very good. Many doubted his abilities, including a lot of the regional press who covered him. I’ve watched as his political abilities grew and improved as he learned the job. Early in 2011, I saw him on a national cable television news show after his bid for the speakership. He was poised, thoughtful and able to discuss big issues with confidence.
If this is indeed Shuler’s political exit, his brief stint would have to be described as wildly successful. He beat a long-time, entrenched incumbent in Charles Taylor in a Republican district. He won three elections, made a symbolic bid for the House speakership, and emerged as a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House who fought hard to reduce the budget deficit. He was talked about as a possible Democratic nominee to run for governor.
But his “no” ends it all — for now.