Bar fight in the Blue Ridge – the battle for the 11th District

By John Armour

You’d think that what happens in Western North Carolina, in the 11th Congressional District, isn’t very important to the powers-that-be in Washington. That’s usually so. But not now. And two extraordinary events that have occurred a year and a half before the 2008 election for that seat prove the point.

Some of you are aware of the TV ads now being run by AFSCME that paint freshman Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, as a good guy. The ad sponsor’s full name is American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. This union is committed to steady expansion of government at all levels, supported by more taxes at all levels.

Why is that union, part of the left wing of the Democratic Party, supporting Heath Shuler (who ran as a “conservative” Democrat) a year before he announces for re-election? It’s simple. AFSCME is practical. If Shuler gets challenged by a hard-line liberal Democrat, like most of the Democrats who have run for this seat over the years, there are two possible bad outcomes. The liberal might beat Shuler and get trounced in the general election. Or, the liberal might damage Shuler so much that he will lose the general election.

This exceptional action by this national union in 2007 has a clear meaning. The unions are trying to scare off any liberal competition for Shuler in his primary. It’s a message that the unions are satisfied that they can work with Shuler for union issues in Congress.

And what gives them that assurance? Shuler has reliably voted with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on critical votes in the House, except when he sought permission to stray — on issues like stem cell research where she had the winning votes anyway, and Heath pleaded for a little independence for the sake of the folks back home.

Are the Republicans taking the 11th District as seriously in 2008? Yes, they are, as shown by the fact that the chief political strategist in the White House, Karl Rove, came to the District recently to address the annual Convention of the Republicans here. Why would someone that important show up here?

The 11th District was one of about nine districts which have been Republican for a decade or more, that should have stayed that way even in 2006, but which the Democrats managed to take. These few districts make up almost half of the seats the Republicans need to retake control of the House.

Who are the voters in the 11th District? We have a few more Democrats than Republicans, but independents (those who “declined” to name a party) occupy the center, about 11 percent of the total. Many of the independents, and a significant number of the Democrats are like Zell Miller, former senator from Georgia who lives just across the state line from us.

These are, like Zell, conservative folks who happen to bear the label Democrat or independent. The man who held this seat for the Republicans for 16 years, Charles Taylor, is making noises about running again. I think the only likely way for the Republicans to lose this seat to Shuler again would be if Taylor gets the Republican nomination. Here’s why:

Taylor used to be one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington. He got himself in trouble in a number of ways. He wound up losing to a rookie with no experience — while spending a million dollars more than the challenger. Taylor was supposedly a sharp cookie. Shuler’s obviously not the sharpest tool in the shed. But Shuler won in 2006.

For 2008, Shuler is stronger, Taylor is weaker. If it’s the same race, the result will be the same. On the other hand, if the Republicans run an experienced, knowledgeable, honest candidate, both parties will bring in their big guns, but the Republican should win comfortably.

And, the 11th District is, next year, a mine canary for all the House races. Win or lose, the fate of the Republicans nationally will probably be the same as here, in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

(John Armor practiced in the U.S. Supreme Court for 33 years and lost to Charles Taylor in the 2006 Republican primary. He lives in Highlands and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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