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Far-left liberal could be a spoiler in Shuler’s next election

A liberal Asheville city council member announced this week he’d run as an Independent in 2012 against U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, potentially eroding Shuler’s Democratic base and making for a tough re-election bid for the three-term congressman.

A former editor for the Asheville-based newspaper Mountain Xpress, Cecil Bothwell acknowledged he has an uphill battle gaining sufficient name recognition outside of Buncombe County to unseat the former NFL quarterback.

“I guess I’ll wear out some shoe leather,” said Bothwell, 60, who turned down a potential opportunity to serve as the chairman of the Buncombe County Democratic Party to tackle Shuler.

Shuler won re-election by more than 20,000 votes in November against Republican Jeff Miller of Hendersonville, who started out his campaign with considerably stronger name recognition than Bothwell.

First, to even get on the ballot as an Independent, Bothwell must by Jan. 1, 2012, garner enough voter signatures to equal 4 percent of the total number of registered voters in the 15-county congressional district — about 20,000 signatures. Then, to win, he must battle an experienced candidate with the ability to raise plenty of money to fund his re-election efforts against Shuler, who’s war chest will easily top $1 million by the time campaign season starts.

But, no matter how unlikely his actual chances of success, Bothwell’s bid is nonetheless important: as a third-party candidate, Bothwell will have the ability to help drive the political debate, plus his entry indicates a possible fracturing of the Democratic base.

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Shuler got in hot water with many Democrats when he voted against health care reform. In the May primary last year, Democratic voters punished Shuler for his conservative leanings at the polls, allowing a relatively unknown candidate from Hendersonville to pull down nearly 40 percent of the primary vote and even carry Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.

If Bothwell pulls a piece of the Democratic pie away during the general election, and if the GOP mounts a meaningful challenge, Shuler really could be facing a challenge getting re-elected, said Chris Cooper, who teaches political science at Western Carolina University and helps oversee a blog on North Carolina politics.

“Surely he doesn’t think he’s going to win,” Cooper said of Bothwell. “And to me, that’s the really interesting question about why he’s running … clearly the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is not happy with Heath Shuler.”

That’s clear because Bothwell, by most any standard, could be described as a liberal Democrat’s Democrat. Asked about his political connections west of Buncombe County, he mentioned anti-death penalty and anti-war advocates, plus interaction with the Canary Coalition, an environmental coalition that is based in Sylva.

He said he believes Shuler is vulnerable; that the congressman is “to the right” of mainstream Democrat Party politics.

“I think people who are Blue Dogs should feel free to switch parties,” Bothwell said.

Shuler has donned the mantle of a fiscally conservative Democrat, represented in Congress by the Blue Dog Coalition that he now helps lead.

Bothwell believes his message will resonate beyond disenchanted members of the Democratic Party. Libertarians and some Republicans likely will find parts of his platform attractive, such as a push for no-more-drug-war and opposition to the Patriot Act, he said.

A WCU/Smoky Mountain News poll in Jackson County before the 2010 November election revealed Shuler’s election successes are attributable to his appeal to a cross-section of voters on both sides of the aisle. Shuler pulled only a general approval rating of 46 percent, with 39 percent unfavorable and the remaining 15 percent undecided. What was striking about the poll is that Republicans gave Shuler just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

Shuler not only locked down the votes of conservative Democrats who would otherwise be quick to desert a more liberal candidate, he captured part of the Republican vote. At the time, Cooper pointed out Shuler also grabbed the liberal Democratic vote simply because they felt they had nowhere else to turn.

Until, that is, now — Bothwell’s entry into the race, no matter how unlikely his chances of pulling off an upset, give unhappy liberal Democrats an option to publicly air any displeasures with Shuler.

There are indications the congressman might well be reacting already to this possible erosion from the extreme left of his base, Cooper said. In a vote that struck many political observers as somewhat incongruous, Shuler voted against a recent resolution to eliminate funding for National Public Radio.

The legislation, which passed the House of Representatives, would eliminate federal funding for NPR and prohibit local stations from using federal funding for content. Shuler cited a need for rural areas such as Western North Carolina to have access to news and information, as provided by NPR.

As for why Bothwell’s running? Bothwell said he wants to improve children’s welfare, saying “I really think we need to retool our support for children in a meaningful way;” he wants to eliminate “corporate personhood,” or treating a company like it’s a person; stop trying to “police the world;” include a public option in health care; and renegotiate global deals to help ensure environmental protections.

Efforts to reach Shuler before press time were unsuccessful.c

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