U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler took a calculated loss when he challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi for the position of House minority leader.
The payoff for losing? Shuler, the Democrat representing this region who is from Bryson City and now calls Waynesville home, emerged as an important national player in one of the biggest political games of them all. His voice and centrist position suddenly are important to the Democratic Party, which is battling internally to redefine itself following heavy midterm election losses.
“I can add and subtract,” Shuler said of the challenge to the soon-to-be former speaker of the House. “I knew we could not win. But it was so important that the leadership in the Democratic caucus should be made to realize why we lost so many seats.”
When the vote came last week, Shuler, as expected, lost big to Pelosi. But the Blue Dog Democrat garnered more than 20 percent of the votes. And he received a lot of airtime on national television and gobs of ink in prominent newspapers, coast to coast.
Shuler also was selected Blue Dog Co-Chair for Administration — a top leadership position of the coalition. The Blue Dogs formed in 1995, ostensibly to represent the center of the House of Representatives and mirror mainstream American values. The current 54-member coalition will decrease almost by half, however, as a result of this month’s election.
Next week in The Smoky Mountain News, look for an in-depth profile of Shuler and his increasingly prominent national role.
Despite an overwhelming Republican landslide in the 2010 congressional election, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-Waynesville) beat back challenger Jeff Miller of Hendersonville in the 11th District to win this third term in Congress.
Shuler, however, who had much more money than his opponent throughout the campaign, will go back to Washington as a member of the minority party. CNN was reporting at 11 p.m. Nov. 2 that Republicans took control of the House on Election Day by winning as many as 50 of the seats up for grabs.
The Shuler-Miller race, however, was not even that close. Shuler won by a 54 to 46 percent margin.
“I’m not too surprised about the Shuler/Miller race,” said Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper. “He was ahead in every poll I saw. He had the former president stumping for him. He is a conservative Democrat in a district dominated by conservative Democrats. Add to that he had excellent name recognition and has all the benefits of incumbency, and even in a Republican year, he was unlikely to lose.”
Shuler is a Bryson City native and former University of Tennessee and NFL quarterback who unseated the powerful Charles Taylor in the 2006 election. In Washington he has aligned himself with Blue Dog coalition, a caucus of moderate-to-conservative House Democrats.
Shuler’s opponent was Jeff Miller, a small businessman who started the Honor Air movement which flies World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorial to that war. He earned a lot of respect during the campaign for staying focused on delivering his message rather than attacking Shuler.
Congressman Heath Shuler has a sizeable financial advantage against his opponent heading into the fall election season.
Shuler, D-Waynesville, had $1.4 million in cash on hand compared to just $65,000 for Jeff Miller, R-Hendersonville, according to campaign finance reports filed by the two candidates in July.
Miller’s campaign contributions for the first six months of 2010 aren’t drastically below that of Shuler’s, however. Miller raised $246,000 in the first six months of the year, compared to $304,000 for Shuler.
The giant spread in their campaign treasuries is due instead to the substantial carryover in Shuler’s war chest from the past two elections. Shuler had $970,000 left, providing a generous foundation for the 2010 race. Plus, Shuler raked in more than half a million in donations in 2009 before Miller had even thrown his hat in the ring.
Miller, meanwhile, didn’t start fundraising until this year.
Miller knows the money race will be a tough road to hoe.
“We don’t have a lot of money like Shuler,” Miller said. “He pretty much has an endless well of money. He could start going on TV right now and max out and not be able to spend all his money.”
Shuler sailed into office two years ago, pulling down 62 percent of the vote compared to 36 percent for his opponent Carl Mumpower. Mumpower, a former Asheville city council member, wasn’t exactly the strongest candidate.
A controversial city councilman, Mumpower was a media lightning rod and seemed to revel in it. His eccentricities magnified during the congressional race, witnessed by a life-sized cardboard cutout of Shuler he carried to debates since Shuler wouldn’t attend.
As a result, Shuler spent only $637,000 to defeat Mumpower even though he raised $1.63 million in the 2008 election cycle.
Shuler admits he didn’t have to work very hard that race.
“Last time it was kind of a pass, and this time it won’t be a pass,” Shuler said, indicating he is ready to spend more this go around.
Miller’s ability to raise close to what Shuler raised during the first half of 2010 is impressive considering the source of contributions. Miller’s donations all came from individuals, while 60 percent of Shuler’s donations this election cycle have come from political action committees.
The incumbent advantage is obvious in the fundraising arena. Shuler picks up contributions from a laundry list of political action committees that make a habit of donating a few thousand a year to just about every sitting member of Congress, from the Airline Pilots Association and National Beer Wholesalers to corporate PACs of companies like Microsoft, Lowe’s and Duke Energy.
The trend will likely continue through the fall.
“People who donate money are strategic about it, and they are more likely to donate money to those who are more likely to win,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
Miller, meanwhile, is relegated to raising smaller sums one individual at a time. The bad economy has made fundraising from individuals harder, he said.
“The part of this job I hate the most is calling people and asking them for money because I know how hard it is right now,” Miller said. “I truly dislike it, but I do it because I have to.”
Miller put in $12,000 of his own money into his candidacy so far. It’s not classified as a loan, so he doesn’t intend to pay himself back. But Miller said if he is asking others to donate their hard-earned money, he should put up some of his own.
To Miller’s detriment, he is spending money almost as soon as it comes in, according to the campaign finance reports. He spent nearly everything he raised as it came in. As a result, he has little reserves to speak of going into the critical three-month countdown to Election Day.
Miller may be behind in the money race, but he is doing what he can on a different front. He has been highly visible in the region, attending events and speaking to groups at a whirlwind pace. Miller chastised Shuler for not spending enough time interfacing with voters.
“He does not do public events. He did not do town halls that I know of,” Miller said. Not even on the health care bill, Miller said. Shuler did do call-in town halls, however, where the public received pass codes to participate.
Shuler said he is in Washington a lot, so he likely won’t be as visible as Miller on the campaign trail since he has a job to do.
“It is much harder and more difficult to be out and about,” Shuler said.
Jeff Miller, R-Hendersonville
Cash on hand: $65,000
Cash entering the election cycle: 0
Percent raised from PACs: 0
Average donation amount: $856
Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville
Cash on hand: $1.428 million
Cash entering the election cycle: $970,000
Percent raised from PACs: 60
Average donation amount: $1,368
* Figures based on federal campaign finance reports filed by the candidates at the close of the second quarter of 2010.
While national pundits predict Republican challengers will steal seats from Democrats in Washington come November, Congressman Heath Shuler likely has little to worry about, based on a recent poll of registered voters in Jackson County.
Shuler, D-Waynesville, has a general approval rating of 46 percent, with 39 percent unfavorable and the remaining 15 percent undecided, according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll conducted by Public Policy Polling out of Raleigh in June.
The results sound merely mediocre for Shuler on the surface. But the poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters reveals a striking anomaly in who Shuler’s supporters are: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.
“That is rare,” said Chris Cooper, a WCU political scientist who developed the poll. “That is very, very rare that Republicans would feel as good about a Democrat as a Democrat does.”
Shuler seems to be in the perfect position given the district’s demographics, Cooper said. Shuler not only locks down the votes of conservative Democrats who would otherwise be quick to desert a more liberal candidate, he also snags part of the Republican vote.
And as for the liberal Democrats, he captures them too since they have nowhere else to turn.
“The Democrats don’t have a more liberal option, so they are probably still going to vote for him,” Cooper said.
Shuler’s approval rating was actually pulled down by those who identified themselves as liberal. The poll asked voters not only what party they were registered as, but also whether they considered themselves liberal, moderate or conservative. Only 30 percent of self-described liberals approved of Shuler. Conservative — even conservative Republicans — were more likely to approve of Shuler than liberals.
Shuler agrees he has strayed from the party on a few key votes. He voted against the stimulus bill and against the Wall Street and auto bailouts. But his vote against health care reform was likely the most upsetting to more liberal Democrats, Shuler said.
“You realize you can’t make everyone happy on every single vote you cast,” Shuler said. “I hope the votes I cast represent a large percentage of our district.”
Shuler may indeed mirror his constituents.
“It is a particular breed of Democrats we have in Western North Carolina,” Cooper said. “So many of our Democrats are conservative. I think the Democrats in Western North Carolina looks a lot like the Southern Democrat of 30 and 40 years ago.”
“Republicans from California could be more liberal than North Carolina Democrats,” Shuler said.
Shuler is the fifth most conservative Democrat in Congress and is the whip for the Blue Dog Democrats, a self-proclaimed group of 54 conservative Democrats who joined forces to form a moderate voting block in the House. The Blue Dogs are more than willing to break ranks with their party when push comes to shove.
Shuler’s opponent, Jeff Miller from Hendersonville, isn’t discouraged by the poll numbers, however. Shuler’s favorable rating was below 50 percent, which political experts say is a dangerous tipping point for incumbents — one that suggests the race is very much in play.
“I know as an incumbent I would not be comfortable with that. I would be worried and trying to do something about it,” Miller said.
Miller said voters this year in particular will be more likely to oust their sitting congressman and go for the challenger.
“This is pretty reflective of what you see around the country. I think there is a ‘get out of our house’ movement that wants to replace everyone,” Miller said. “People are very frustrated with the federal government.”
Indeed, the PPI/SMN poll of Jackson voters showed only 29 percent had a favorable opinion of the federal government. But given Shuler’s approval rating of 46 percent, they seem to distinguish between the two.
Miller’s campaign conducted a poll of its own the first week of June. The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Va., on behalf of Miller’s campaign, targeted only 300 voters in the 15-county district with a 5.6 percent margin of error. WCU’s poll surveyed more nearly 600 voters and had a 4 percent margin of error.
In Miller’s poll, Shuler had an approval rating of 53 percent — compared to 46 percent in the poll of only Jackson County voters.
Jackson County has a greater percentage of Democrats than the district as a whole, which should theoretically translate into a higher approval rating for Shuler in Jackson — not a lower one. Instead, the results offer further proof liberal Democrats actually pull his approval rating down.
While Shuler is busy pointing out his conservative votes, Miller is busy pointing out his opponent’s liberal ones. Miller rattled off several Democratic bills that Shuler supported: financial reform, pro-union legislation and cap and trade. And most importantly, says Miller, Shuler voted to give control of the House to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Mrs. Pelosi’s values I don’t think are our mountain values,” Miller said.
The poll conducted by Miller asked people who they plan to vote for: 46 percent said Shuler, 34 percent said Miller and 18 percent were undecided. Miller said that’s not bad, considering it was right after the primary and he doesn’t yet enjoy the name recognition that he will have by November. In fact, only 38 percent of those polled had heard of him.
Dissatisfaction with Shuler among some Democrats led to a relatively poor showing for Shuler in the May primary — he pulled only 60 percent of the vote — especially considering he ran against a no-name opponent. Aixa Wilson did no campaigning to speak of and was largely unknown, with a name that left many voters wondering whether he was a man or a woman. Nonetheless, Wilson made an impressive showing and even carried Buncombe County over Shuler.
“It is easy to cast a protest vote when you know your candidate is going to win,” Cooper said.
It’s another matter when the seat is really on the line, Cooper said.
However, Miller said Democrats have told him personally they will vote for him instead of Shuler.
“I do believe some are going to jump ship,” Miller said.
But Shuler disagreed.
“They won’t jump ship,” Shuler said. “Even though they may not agree with my health care vote, they at least recognize I am the same person I said I was when I first ran for office.”
Shuler may not vote the way Democrats like all the time, but he at least votes their way more often than Miller would.
But Miller said he has heard firsthand from liberal Democrats who plan to vote against Shuler “out of anger for Shuler because he did not vote the way [they] wanted,” Miller said.
Miller said these voters are willing to sacrifice the seat to a Republican for now with the aim of running a more progressive candidate two years from now and claiming it back. Miller joked that he is never quite sure “whether to say thanks or not” when hearing from these voters.
Cooper is skeptical that many Democrats would be willing to sacrifice the seat for two years in hopes of winning it back in 2012 under the banner of a more liberal Democrat.
“I don’t think people vote that strategically. I think people talk that strategically, but I don’t know if they vote that strategically,” Cooper said.
There is one problem with a disenchanted base, however. Candidates rely on party loyalists to propel their campaigns, and Shuler may suffer in that area.
“Real party loyalists are less likely to be excited about Shuler, put a yard sign up for Shuler, tell their friend about Shuler,” Cooper said.
Shuler explains his more conservative leanings as simply rising above party politics.
“Far too often we are seeing the extreme on both sides get most of the talking points, but I feel like I am the person in the middle trying to be a conduit saying, ‘Here is the middle ground folks,’” Shuler said. “It is more about the individual that you are actually voting for and less about the party.”
Cooper said a scandal is likely the only thing that could compromise Shuler’s favorable rating in the short time span between now and the election.
“Save some kind of John Edwards situation, he is looking pretty good,” Cooper said.
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.
Republicans faced a major decision in the primary election: who is the best man to go head to head with Congressman Heath Shuler come fall?
The two front-runners going into election day came from opposite sides of the conservative spectrum: Dan Eichenbaum, a Tea Party activist at one end, and Jeff Miller, a more moderate small businessman at the other.
Ultimately, Republicans chose Miller — the more moderate of the two — as their man.
Miller, 55, is the owner of a dry-cleaning business in Hendersonville with 24 employees. He is well known for founding Honor Air, a program that charters airplanes to bring groups of WWII veterans to Washington, D.C., at no cost to see the WWII monument before they die. Hundreds of veterans from WNC have flown to D.C. with Honor Air. Rotary Clubs across the region have partnered with Miller as sponsors of the program to fund the charter jets and provide chaperone escorts for the elderly veterans during the trip.
With 40.15 percent of the vote, Miller barely eked out enough to avoid a primary runoff. If no candidate garners more than 40 percent of the vote, the top two voter-getters face off in a second election.
Eichenbaum, 67, an ophthalmologist in Murphy, had a strong grassroots army, drawing from the ranks of Tea Party members. At debates, he always won straw polls among audience members.
“He is a strong advocate of the Constitution,” said Bill Sterrett, who was volunteering at the polls for Eichenbaum in Waynesville Tuesday. “That’s important. There’s been too much concentration over the years with political parties. We need to get back to being Americans and solving problems.”
Heather Koonts, a Republican from Cullowhee and mother of two, voted for Eichenbaum. Eichenbaum’s strong conservative values and philosophy of limited government appealed to her, she said it an exit poll interview.
While Eichenbaum polled well among the disaffected ranks of conservatives, some voters may have questioned his electability come fall.
Eichenbaum was formerly registered Libertarian and could quote chapter and verse of the Federalist Papers. While he was the darling of the Tea Party movement, he may have been unable to court moderate voters needed to win in a general election against Shuler.
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 Congressman Heath Shuler.
Republicans are holding out hope that a national tide will carry them to victory against Shuler. But six months is a long time in American politics and no one can predict if the Republican fury will fade or sustain itself — or whether it could touch Shuler. Both years Shuler won — in 2006 and 2008 — were generally good years for Democrats.
Another major story in the congressional race is how poorly Shuler did among Democrats, many of whom punished Shuler at the polls for his conservative leanings. Aixa Wilson, a relatively unknown candidate from Asheville, pulled down nearly 40 percent of the primary vote. Wilson actually won in Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.
Democratic voters interviewed at the polls chastised Shuler for voting against Democratic initiatives.
“He stood against his party on important issues,” Mark Lancaster, a 32-year-old Waynesville Democrat, said in an exit poll interview.
Vangie Stephens, a Democrat with Sylva, is a self-described liberal was particularly upset by Shuler’s vote against health care reform. Stephens said there are a lot of poor people in the region who need help.
Gloria Nicholson, Republican voter from Waynesville, said she liked Shuler as much as any of the Republican candidates.
“We just wish Shuler was running on the Republican side,” Nicholson said.
Republican – one advances
Jeff Miller: 14,386
Dan Eichenbaum: 12,183
Gregory Newman: 4,180
Kenny West: 2,809
Ed Krause: 1,455
James Howard: 820
Democrat – one advances
Heath Shuler: 26,809
Aixa Wilson: 16,729
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.”
There are six Republicans vying for a shot to run against Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, this year.
The six Republican candidates share similar platforms on all the salient talking points: they are against the health care bill that passed, they want smaller government, they want to reduce debt and they all pledge to “get the country back on the right track.”
But they have vastly different backgrounds. And despite sharing the standard Republican agenda, there are differences that set them apart, with some further right than others.
Miller runs a dry-cleaning business with 24 employees that was started by his parents. He is married and has a 17-year-old son.
Miller founded Honor Air, a program that charters airplanes to bring groups of WWII veterans to Washington, D.C., at no cost to see the WWII monument before they die. His plan was initially to reach all the veterans in Henderson County. But the project took off and by the end of the first year of the project, he had flown 800 veterans to D.C. Last year, the Honor Air network under Miller’s supervision flew 18,000 veterans to D.C. from 35 states.
Why did you decide to run?
“I had never talked about it, never thought about it, but I had a lot of people asking me to do it.”
Those people happened to be what Miller called “bookend generations” that each meant the world to him — his 17-year-old son and WWII veterans who he works closely with through Honor Air flights. They convinced Miller he was the type of common sense leader people were looking for.
What do you hope to accomplish?
“The number one thing we have to do is drive down the national debt. I like to call it beginning the deconstruction of big government.”
What separates you from other candidates?
“I understand the pains and challenges of running a business. I know what it’s like to sign the front of a payroll check and have to back it up. I think right now if there is anything the country needs it is people who have had to balance a budget.”
Miller is more moderate that some candidates.
“I am not a far right-winger. I think both parties have a piece of this mess we are in.”
He avoids bashing the President or the Democratic Party, and he admits there are “some good things” in the health care bill.
Newman is a partner in his firm and practices every type of law, from criminal to civil. He also served as a prosecutor in the 1990s. He served as mayor of Hendersonville for four years. He is married and has three kids ranging from 9 to 20 years old.
Why did you decide to run?
“I saw the fear and worry people were starting to experience. There are a lot of people beginning to think the government is too large, and our kids and grandkids are going to have an enormous tax burden on them. It is that lack of confidence that motivated me to want to get into this thing.”
What do you hope to accomplish?
“I want to restore people’s confidence in our future. We have to make some very bold actions about what we choose to fund in this government.”
What separates you from other candidates?
“I want to be honest with people about what it is going to take to get our fiscal house in order.”
On that note, Newman suggests axing the federal departments of Education, Energy and Homeland Security, considering them a duplication of existing departments or failing to provide any vital services.
“I am the only one who has been bold enough to state specifically what I intended to cut.”
Eichenbaum has been a leader in the Tea Party movement and the 9/12 Project in the mountains. Eichenbaum was formerly registered as a Libertarian and ran for county commissioner in Cherokee County in 2002 on the Libertarian ticket. He said he became a Libertarian out of frustration at the direction of the Republican Party at one stage but was “never a big ‘L’ libertarian.”
Why did you decide to run?
Eichenbaum is fed up with government interference in his life and business.
“It got to the point where for the past year or so I have been screaming at my television set and yelling at my satellite radio in my truck.” He even found himself giving political speeches in the shower.
Last spring, he went to the Tea Party in Atlanta on tax day with a homemade sign with a single word: Liberty.
“We get there and there are 20,000 people. I was inspired and empowered.”
He came home and started a chapter of the 9/12 Project that grew from half a dozen to 600 members by the end of the summer. He inadvertently became the leader of a movement, and was ultimately convinced to run by those around him.
What do you hope to accomplish?
“I’ve had a platform from day one: limited government, individual freedom, personal responsibility, fiscal restraint and free market economy. Those are my five tools and my tool belt is the Constitution of the United States.”
What separates you from other candidates?
Eichenbaum said he is more knowledgeable than all the other candidates and has won straw polls at every Republican debate he has been in, which he credits to his ability to define a problem and pose a solution that will work.
“I can speak to those points on any issue anyone will ever ask me about. I am starting to hear my own words come back to me now from some of these other candidates.”
Eichenbaum is sick and tired of top down politics in Washington and RINOS, Republicans In Name Only.
Krause is married and has five grown children and an adopted teenager still at home. He has written three novels set in a fictitious small town in the rural Southern Appalachians. He is a fan of model railroads.
Why did you decide to run?
“I am concerned and upset about the bad economic situation and the government’s inability to solve the problem.”
What do you hope to accomplish?
“We have to pay back the debt. We are mortgaging our children and grandchildren.”
What separates you from other candidates?
“We are all the same. There are only minor differences between us all. I stress that I am a problem solver. I am not a flashy person or eloquent person but I can get the job done.”
West is a representative for Liberty National Life Insurance company focused on businesses accounts and works strictly on commission. He is the eighth ranking salesperson out of 6,800 insurance reps, even though he has only been on the job three years. Before that, he was a regional director with a large company overseing 160 employee that published church directories around the Southeast.
Why did you decide to run?
“When I looked at things going on and the choices being made, I told my wife, ‘This is not the America Kenny West knows.’ I think we forgot about our founding fathers and the principles they stood for when they fought and died for our country.”
West invited over his pastor and friends over to pray and talk about whether West should run while sharing a bucket of chicken wings in his basement one evening.
What do you hope to accomplish?
“I submit to you there is a lack of character in Congress. If we don’t put God and character back in this county, it is over for my children.”
What separates you from other candidates?
West has made his belief in God, his family values and strong Christian principles a central part of his campaign message. He is surprised how absent God is in the other candidates’ platforms.
“I have already been called a theocrat by one of them. Am I a zealot? No, but I am a Christian. All blessings come from God.”
West, a Baptist, represents strong family values. He’s been married just once, never smoked or drank, and doesn’t cheat.
Howard grew up in New York as one of 11 children. He retired to Franklin from Florida in 2002. In Florida, he was a commercial helicopter pilot, but also worked in law enforcement for a stint and owned a real estate title company.
When asked his age, Howard refused, saying it wasn’t an issue in the campaign. “That is the problem with reporters,” he said, and then insisted he was 39. His real age was obtained from his registration information at the board of elections, however.
Why did you decide to run?
Howard filed a class action lawsuit against Congress in 2009 following the passage of the stimulus bill. He filed it without a lawyer, “on behalf of himself and the American taxpayer,” according to the suit.
He claims Congress was “derelict in their duties” and “conspired collectively to undermine the people who hired them with their vote.”
In a nut shell, that’s why he decided to run.
“I am not going to stand by and watch our great country destroy itself under the present leadership of the current Congress,” Howard said. “I am going to give it more than a college try.”
What do you hope to accomplish?
He pledges to always put the interests of those who elected him first.
“They hire me, they elect me, I serve them when I get to Washington.”
What separates you from other candidates?
None of the others have the right experience in the “trenches” of the Republican Party. Howard cited his work as the executive director of the Broward County Republican Party in Florida.
Howard said even if one of the other candidates gets elected, they won’t know what to do when they get to D.C.
“That person will be buried for two years and won’t be able to take his hands out of his pockets. It’s a fraternity up there,” Howard said.
Claude Douthit has spent half his life fighting the federal government over the North Shore Road.
The decades-old debate dates back to the 1940s, when the federal government flooded a road outside Bryson City with the construction of Lake Fontana. The government promised to rebuild it but never did. While Swain gave up its quest for the long-promised road and agreed to take a cash settlement instead, the government had been dragging its feet lately on that as well.
Douthit, 81, began to wonder whether he would live long enough to see the cash settlement come to fruition or whether his decades of work would go to waste. He occasionally wanted to give up.
“I felt like it many times. I felt like it was so futile,” Douthit said. “[But] I just kept working on it. I am very pleased that a 66-year injustice to Swain County has finally been resolved.”
So when word trickled down that Congress would finally be passing an earmark with Swain County’s name on it, an afternoon in front of CSPAN seemed like a small price to pay. Douthit camped out in front of his television through hours of Congressional drudgery last Wednesday to witness an otherwise anti-climactic vote by the House on the defense spending bill. Tucked deep in that bill was a Christmas present to Swain County: $12.8 million secured by Congressman Heath Shuler toward repairing a decades-old broken promise.
“After 66 years I’d say it is history in the making to get something instead of nothing,” Douthit said. “I wanted to see it. After working on this issue for 40 years, it was time to get something, time for me to see some results.”
County Commission Chairman Glenn Jones said the news was heartwarming after such a long struggle.
“The people of Swain County can now share this settlement,” Jones said.
Douthit credits Shuler for getting the appropriation.
“I think he has done a good job. He has finally got them to realize they owe Swain County,” Douthit said.
While others before him failed, Shuler was keenly positioned to bring the long-standing issue to a close. For starters, he grew up in Swain County, and to him, the debate was more than just political posturing.
“To grow up in that community and see how that road has divided families and divided the community, when there is an opportunity to settle something that has lingered for that many decades, to put it to rest, I hope we can bring the community back together,” Shuler said.
Shuler said his heart goes out to those with deep feelings on both sides in the debate, but his position for a settlement has been driven by the need for closure.
Shuler’s politics may have given him leverage in winning the earmark. As a Blue Dog Democrat — part of a coalition of conservative Democrats — he has angered the Democratic majority for voting against them on key legislation but also staked out his position as a swing voter for the party, potentially making it easier to curry favors.
“I’m glad Heath had a enough clout to get what we got right now,” Jones said.
The quest for a cash settlement has been vehemently opposed by those who would rather see the flooded road rebuilt as originally promised. Road supporters have fought equally long and equally hard.
But the environmental resistance to building a 30-mile road through a remote section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — not to mention a price tag of $600 million — led many to realize rebuilding the road would never happen and that a cash settlement in lieu of the road was Swain’s best chance at putting the issue to bed.
The National Park Service formally spoke out against the road in 2007. Now, with the cash settlement cemented in a Congressional act, it becomes virtually impossible to roll back. Douthit said it is time for warring sides to move on.
“Swain County citizens will no longer be divided over this issue and can press ahead toward a brighter future for every resident of the county,” Douthit said.
More to come
While the appropriation falls short of the $52 million Swain hoped to get from a cash settlement, it’s an important milestone.
“Before this, they never had made a commitment,” Jones said. “To me, that shows that they realize they do owe Swain County something.”
The settlement amount of $52 million is based on the value of the road at the time it was flooded plus interest and inflation. The $12.8 million has been coined a “down payment” on a total sum to come.
“The congressman has said this is a down payment. He is not giving up,” Jones said.
Negotiations between Swain County and the federal government over the dollar amount of a cash settlement have been stalled for a year and a half but may finally be on track again.
Shuler said attorneys on both sides are drawing up the draft language for a settlement agreement “as we speak.”
“I certainly hope in the next 30 to 60 days we get something that is concrete,” Shuler said.
As for the amount, no one is saying how much Swain compromised on the sum of $52 million.
“I feel like we will get something we can be very proud of,” Shuler said.
Shuler said he will fight for another round of appropriations next year.
Now that it’s clear that Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, did indeed mislead everyone about his involvement in a land deal that one of his companies negotiated with the Tennessee Valley Authority, constituents will be forced to make a character judgment that could stick for the rest of his political career.
This controversy could be a turning point in a political career that just a short while ago seemed to be arcing upward, or it may merely fall by the wayside. Either way, the sad fact is that the entire controversy was self-inflicted.
The land swap involved a Tennessee real estate development in which Shuler was a partner. Apparently, there was an agreement to swap parcels to provide the Shuler development better water access. It’s a routine matter with the TVA, and the agreement was apparently agreed to before Shuler ever became a congressman.
The problem arose when rumors began flying that Shuler pressured the TVA into making the deal. Shuler sits on a committee that oversees the TVA, and he repeatedly told the press he did not contact the agency about the deal.
As it turns out, Shuler did — according to the TVA — call the top TVA official and complain about the land deal happening too slowly. If the TVA is to believed, then Shuler was lying.
Shuler’s office — the congressman himself isn’t talking to reporters — hasn’t addressed the revelations about the contradiction, only telling all media who ask that the congressman was cleared of any wrongdoing in the case, and that Shuler has been cleared by the House Ethics Committee, federal authorities and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). All agree he did not use his office to influence the outcome of the land swap.
But the question now left for constituents to ponder was included in the TVA final report: “Specifically, if all of this was above board, why did TVA and Shuler feel compelled to tell the media that there was no contact between the congressman and TVA in relation to the Maintain and Gain application? There obviously was,” the report reads.
Lies, little or big, have sunk more politicians than any bribe or sexual misconduct. And in a very conservative district, this could spell trouble. Shuler will, of course, be attacked from Republicans who want to take this seat back. He’s also taking heat from his own party for a voting record that swings as far right as any Democrat in Congress.
In the end, this mistake will likely be written off as a political miscue from a relatively green newcomer to the arena of big-time politics. We hope that’s the case, and that Shuler and his handlers learn a valuable lesson about dealing with the public and the press.