The final days
Both considered conservatives within their own political parties, Republican Mark Meadows and Democrat Hayden Rogers have more in common than just a handful of political similarities.
Both are Christian, came out of humble beginnings to find success, married their high school sweethearts, have two children and are running for the U.S. House in North Carolina’s 11th District. The list could continue.
Rogers takes early lead in congressional fundraising
By Shannan Mashburn • Intern
Democrat Hayden Rogers has commanded the lead in the money race for the congressional election to take over U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler’s seat in Washington next year.
Neither Rogers nor his Republican opponent Mark Meadows raised a staggering amount of money during the spring and summer, when most candidates typically see a drop off in political contributions before the big push going into fall.
Meadows and Rogers emerge from crowded field of Washington hopefuls
Mark Meadows and Hayden Rogers came out on top last night in a Congressional election that at the beginning of the day boasted a full slate of 11 candidates.
The field of eight Republicans and three Democrats vying to represent the mountains in the halls of Washington was narrowed down. Rogers won 56 percent of the Democratic vote. Although Meadows emerged as the top vote getter on the Republican ticket, he received less than 40 percent of the votes — the minimum percentage required to officially win a race. Now, a special election must be held between Meadows and the second-highest vote getter on the Republican ticket, Vance Patterson, on June 26.
The Congressional race became a wide open contest after Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, announced he would not seek re-election after six years in office. Shuler was a conservative Democrat and had the ability to cater to both side of the political spectrum among mountain voters.
A wide field of Republicans were already lining up to take on Shuler, but after Shuler announced his retirement, the floodgates opened even wider for anyone with the dream of holding a congressional seat.
Republican voters particularly had a difficult time with a daunting eight candidates to choose from. The choice will be considerably easier when two distinct candidates emerge for the November election.
On the Democratic side, Shuler’s own chief of staff Hayden Rogers put his hat in the ring after Shuler’s retirement and has emerged as the victor in the Democratic primary.
Rogers said he is thrilled that he has moved one step closer to the possibility of representing the community that he grew up in.
“I’m really excited,” Rogers said. “We were sort of last to the dance, but we worked really, really hard to put a structure in place and get our message out.”
Rogers, 41, grew up in Robbinsville where he played high school football, majored in political science at Princeton University and now lives near Murphy.
Now that the race has narrowed, Rogers said he will continue to push his message of working together to move the nation forward rather than to the left or right.
“Whether it’s Mr. Meadows or any of the other Republican candidates for the most part, they are pushing a sort of fringe ideology,” Rogers said. “I really believe voters are looking for true leadership and open mindedness.”
Lauren Bishop, a Waynesville resident, said she was personally was sad to see Shuler step down and has now thrown her support behind Rogers who she believes can pick up where Shuler left off.
Many voters leaving the polls could not recall which congressional candidate they supported — or did not vote in the race at all, indicating that that particular primary race was not what necessarily drove people to the polls yesterday.
On the Republican ticket, Meadows, a 52-year-old Christian businessman from Cashiers, has advanced to the front of the Republican pack.
At about 10 p.m. Tuesday night, Meadows was optimistic but did not want to comment on the race at that time.
“We are excited about our vote totals at this point,” Meadows said at that time. Meadows did not return later calls for comment.
He is currently a real estate developer in Jackson County. Meadows has no previous experience in a political office.
His opponent, Vance Patterson, is a 61-year-old resident of Morganton. Patterson has 37 years of business leadership experience and started 16 companies. The TEA party candidate ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress in North Carolina’s 10th District in 2010.
Fundraising unveiled in down-to-the-wire Congressional race
The litany of Republicans from Western North Carolina running for Congress haven’t taken any cues from their counterparts on the presidential stage, where the once robust field of candidates has slowly been picked off until there was just one man left standing.
Although all eight Republican contenders for the 11th District seat have hung on to the bitter end, a few have clearly emerged as front-runners as the primary draws to a close.
Jeff Hunt, Mark Meadows and Ethan Wingfield have emerged as the Republican front-runners in the race.
“They are raising the most money. They seem to be putting together the most endorsements,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
In a recent poll of self-described Republican voters, Meadows, Wingfield and Hunt ranked top three, respectively. More than 40 percent of those surveyed were still undecided however, according to the independent poll by the Atlanta-based Rosetta Stone Communications.
It’s going to be “a tight race,” Cooper said. “It’s going to start coming down to things like name recognition.”
• Hunt is a 61-year-old Brevard resident who has served as district attorney of Henderson, Transylvania and Polk counties since 1994.
• Meadows is a 52-year-old Cashiers resident, former restaurant owner and real estate developer.
• Wingfield is a 26-year-old native of Weaverville, who started his only technology firm in 2003. He was recently a senior strategy consultant for Capital One.
Prior to the poll, Hunt and Meadows had already classified themselves as front-runners. Meadows said he feels good about his place in the race, while Hunt describes himself as the only candidate with a consistently conservative record. Hunt is the only candidate of the three who has held a political office.
Wingfield sprang onto the political scene late last year with an announcement that he had raised about $201,000 in 10 days — of that $125,000 was money he loaned himself, however, not individual contributions. Wingfield is pleased to be in the top-three field.
“Clearly, our grassroots support is surging, and we have the momentum in this race,” Wingfield said.
Something about what Wingfield is selling is catching on with voters, Cooper said.
“He is young. He is articulate. In some ways, it makes sense,” Cooper said.
On the Democratic side, Hayden Rogers has emerged as the front-runner, particularly in the money race.
Meadows has the most money of the candidates. But, much of it has come from his own personal wealth. The conservative Christian advanced his campaign $250,000. He received nearly $122,700 in individual donations. Of that, $9,200 came from political committees.
“Clearly, Meadows had the money from the beginning,” Cooper said.
However, Hunt has shown he has a more diverse base of donors and contributors, raising almost $138,000 for his coffer. Of that, political committees donated $395. He also loaned himself $11,600. As a district attorney, Hunt has run for office before, possibly giving him an established donor network to more easily tap.
So far, Wingfield has raised about $133,300, with $5,000 of that from political committees. Wingfield has loaned himself $200,000.
Both Hunt and Meadows received a large portion of their donations — more than 85 percent — from inside Western North Carolina. For Wingfield, only 12 percent of the individual gifts were from inside WNC.
However, none of the Republican candidates are raising much money this primary season, compared to one of their Democratic counterparts, Hayden Rogers, who rallied a war chest of $300,000 in just three months of fundraising, all of it from donations.
Rogers has emerged as the front-runner of the three Democrats running for the seat.
The broad field has made fundraising harder for Republican candidates. People either are not giving, waiting to see who will win the primary, or have split their contributions among a couple of favorites.
“It’s been split so many ways,” Cooper said. “The really base voters don’t know who they support and don’t know who is likely to win.”
So, to bolster their standing in the lineup, candidates are racking up lists of notables to endorse their individual message.
Just last month, Hunt received the endorsement of 11 fellow district attorneys, Bruce Briggs of Madison, Mayor Jimmy Harris of Brevard and Mayor Steve Little of Marion.
Meadows saw a huge boost in recognition and support with the endorsement by Jeff Miller, a Republican candidate for Congress who went up against Shuler in 2010.
Meadows has compiled an index of at least 34 endorsements, including Sen. Jimmy Jacumin, state Rep. Carolyn Justus, state Rep. Phillip Frye, state Rep. Mitch Gillespie and Sheriff Robert Holland of Macon County.
Wingfield has not announced any endorsements thus far.
However, in the end, who a candidate’s backers, both financially and verbally, are does not automatically translate to a victory.
“Money is important. Endorsements are important,” Cooper said, but ultimately, it is votes that count.
Democrat field limited
The Democratic voters have a considerably easier time — with three distinct candidates to choose from. Hayden Rogers is a Blue Dog Democrat from Murphy; and Cecil Bothwell is a liberal Democrat from Asheville; and Tom Hill, a retired scientist, is a comparatively unknown candidate from Zirconia.
Of the trio, the two standouts are Rogers and Bothwell, who both have previous political experience. However, Rogers has a clear upper hand in a conservative-leaning district, where he could draw a potentially broader base of voters come November than Bothwell.
“Bothwell is an ideological brand in some ways,” Cooper said. “He is the kind of person who can get really active support from a small group of people.”
The question is: Can Bothwell get enough 11th District voters to buy into his beliefs and plans?
“He obviously has an uphill battle,” Cooper said. “I just don’t know that that is a brand that will sell well in WNC.”
Rogers was the clear winner as far as fundraising goes this quarter. The former chief of staff to Shuler for six years, he has contacts in Washington and party connections that no doubt benefited his fund raising efforts.
“Rogers has had a real advantage,” Cooper said.
In just three months, Rogers raised about $301,000 — two-thirds of which came from individuals. The remaining came from political committees.
“It’s a sign of the strength of our campaign but also shows how well our message is resonating with voters,” Rogers said in a news release.
His ability to quickly raise funds in a primary and with a relative lack of competition will give Rogers an advantage over the Republican nominee, Cooper said.
“Rogers is going to have such a head start because he is able to focus on the general,” Cooper said.
Meanwhile, Bothwell has raised a total of about $58,000 during a more than six-month period, plus a loan of $4,000. All but $900 of his war chest came from individual contributions — lots and lots of them. Bothwell had many dollar-and-cent amounts compared to Rogers’ $100-plus contributions.
“We’ve attended more than 160 events in the district over the past year,” Bothwell said in a news release. “This contest will be a real test of grassroots organizing versus the big money power brokers in Raleigh and Washington, D.C.”
Less than half of Bothwell’s and Rogers’ contributions came from people in Western North Carolina, a calculation that can be indicative of what type of support candidates are receiving from people who can actually cast a vote for them.
“It is a very important metric,” Cooper said. “It is not what you’d want to see as a candidate.”
Cooper predicted that voter turnout for the primary will be low statewide. Most states only see a 3 or 4 percent voter turnout, Cooper said, and North Carolina will be no different. Those who do vote, he said, will have distinct leans to either the left or right — a fact that could “bode well for Bothwell.”
Rogers is considered a more conservative Democrat.
And although quantity of youth voters was a popular discussion topic in 2008, Cooper said this year would likely see low turnout among the 18- to 29-year-old age bracket as well.
“The youth turnout I do not think is going to be very good,” Cooper said.
Meet some of the candidates
Several of the Republican congressional candidates will attend a dinner and meet-and-greet starting at 6 p.m., April 27, at Southwestern Community College’s Swain County campus with an opportunity to meet-and-greet the candidates.
Among the 11th District Congressional Candidates who have confirmed their intent to attend are Spence Campbell, Jeff Hunt, Mark Meadows, Vance Patterson and Chris Petrella. Other congressional candidates will have representatives in attendance.
Bring a covered side dish, salad or dessert. The main dish will be provided.
Primary for state House seat attracts new Republican field
When it comes to the election season, 2012 has turned into a bellwether year for North Carolina, and Republicans are clammoring to claim state and federal seats currently held by Democrats.
Even the popular N.C. House Democrat Ray Rapp, who has enjoyed two uncontested election seasons, is now facing mounting competition for his 118th District seat. Rapp has represented Haywood and Madison counties in the N.C. House for 10 years.
“I think this is a really interesting year,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “There is so much uncertainty.”
Rapp will be pitted against one of three Republican candidates come fall.
The make-up of Rapp’s district changed only slightly when new lines were drawn following the national census, a political shuffle that occurs every 10 years to ensure that each district still has roughly the same number of residents.
Rapp’s district has lost parts of Haywood County and picked up the whole of Yancey County.
Prior to the reconfiguration, the district was 28 percent Republican, but it is now 31 percent.
The three Republican candidates hoping to take on Rapp are:
• Jesse Sigmon, 63, is retired from the Department of Revenue but works part-time at Builders Express in Mars Hill, where he currently resides. Sigmon ran unsuccessfully for state office in 1998 and again in 2000, but he said the new district make-up could be the change he needs to win.
“The numbers are more favorable to a fair election for a Republican,” Sigmon said. “I did not feel I could win in the past few elections because of the numbers.”
• Michele Presnell, 60, is a current Yancey County Commissioner and owner of Serendipity Custom Frames in Burnsville. She is also the wife of former state senator Keith Presnell. Presnell said that the district needs a change — someone who can better represent its constituents.
“This is a new district, and I feel that I can represent the people of this district in a more conservative way,” she said.
• Ben Keilman, a Canton resident and Pisgah graduate, is by far the youngest competitor at 23. He recently graduated with a political science degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he was active in College Republicans. Keilman currently works for his father at Asheville Cabinets.
In the last election two years ago, Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time in a century. And, the political tide in North Carolina continues to turn in favor of the traditionally more conservative party, Cooper said.
“More Republicans think they’ve got a shot,” he said, later adding that the once-light blue state now has a purple tint. “This is all just a path to becoming a red state.”
However, disorganization among the state Republican Party, witnessed by the outpouring of so many candidates in the primary, will benefit Democrats in the long run, Cooper said.
“The Republican’s don’t seem to have an organized party to sift through these candidates,” Cooper said. “The lack of party organization is really striking to me.”
The race for Heath Shuler’s seat in Congress is another election in which Republicans will need to narrow the field. It is even more hotly contested with eight Republicans battling for their party’s nomination.
Although the House district held by Rapp is still majority Democrat, it does not mean that the race will be a cakewalk for Rapp, however.
“I think it will be a little more difficult,” Cooper said.
Rapp agreed that the district is more competitive than it once was and said he will focus on visiting all corners of the district and meeting with constituents — something he has become known for.
“It’s too easy to get drawn into the world in Raleigh and forget your roots,” Rapp said. “Accessibility, I hope, has been a hallmark of my terms.”
Rapp said he is occasionally teased that he will show up anywhere-even a goat roping.
Eichenbaum bows out of GOP congressional race
The crowded Republican field vying for Heath Shuler’s former seat in Congress thinned out by one this week.
Dan Eichenbaum, an eye doctor from Murphy, rode onto the political scene in Western North Carolina in 2010 with the Tea Party wave. At one-time a Libertarian, Eichenbaum preached Tea Party-brand conservatism, had a fierce independent streak and believed strongly in Constitutional liberty.
In a press release Monday, Eichenbaum said he did not have the money to run against some of the more deep-pocketed candidates in the Republican primary. Two of the candidates considered likely frontrunners, Mark Meadows of Cashiers and Ethan Wingfield of Asheville, are independently wealthy with the ability to put more of their own money into the race.
But fundraising aside, Eichenbaum likely faced a tough race regardless. Despite his Tea Party connections, he was not embraced by the Republican establishment. He had failed to win key nods early in the primary season, from local endorsements to the support of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Without that support, Eichenbaum would have had a difficult time.
“The Tea Party name provides candidates an important signal about ideology and a rallying cry for supporters, but electoral politics is about a lot more than signals — it’s also about organization,” said Chris Cooper, a political scientist and professor at Western Carolina University.
Eichenbaum was a close second in the Republican contest for Congress in 2010, coming in just behind the more moderate Jeff Miller. After losing in the primary, however, he burned bridges with the Republican establishment by refusing to support Miller in the general election against Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler.
This year, Eichenbaum was once again among the more conservative Republican candidates. An active Libertarian before switching his affiliation to Republican, he was considered by some in the Republican establishment too radical to win in a general election. Eichenbaum had already garnered endorsements from three Tea Party chapters in the mountains: the Asheville Tea Party, the Cherokee County Tea Party and the Blue Ridge Tea Party.
(Correction: A story in last week’s paper incorrectly stated that Dan Eichenbaum had been endorsed by the Henderson County Tea Party. Instead, he had been endorsed by the Blue Ridge Tea Party, which is also based in Hendersonville.)
The filing period for the May 8 primary and the November general election ends Feb. 29.
Filling Shuler’s shoes: Democrats round out the ranks of those vying for Congress
Outgoing Congressman Heath Shuler hopes to pass the torch to his own chief of staff, a like-minded, conservative Democrat who is rapidly being embraced by the party establishment as a replacement for Shuler on the ballot come November.
Hayden Rogers, native of Robbinsville and longtime chief of staff to Shuler, announced his candidacy last Wednesday — one week after Shuler declared that he would not seek re-election.
“He would be an extremely strong candidate,” Shuler said, quick to offer an endorsement of Rogers. “My theory has always been I wanted to surround myself with the best and brightest.”
Shuler said Rogers is “very, very smart” and already known and well-respected by the other members of Congress, giving him a leg up when it comes to serving the district should he win.
Rogers said his decision to run comes from a desire to continue the work he and Shuler have started.
“It stemmed from much of my experience with Heath and the enjoyment and pleasure we have gotten from working for the people of Western North Carolina,” Rogers said. “That is what I would like to continue to do.”
Similar to Shuler, Rogers, who now lives in the Murphy area with his wife and daughters, played football in high school in Graham County. He grew up hunting squirrels and fishing in the mountains with his grandfather, yet went on to major in political science at Princeton, where he also played football. Prior to working for Shuler, he owned his own wholesale nursery and landscaping business.
Rogers said that like Shuler, he will work with people from across party lines and will not pout and whine if he does not get his way.
“I think we’ve got plenty who do that now,” he said.
In the primary, Rogers will face competition from Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville city councilman, who planned to run even before Shuler stepped down. After Shuler announced he was bowing out, Bothwell issued a press release proclaiming himself the “frontrunner” for the Democratic nomination.
“Apparently, Cecil Bothwell is the frontrunner. I read that he said that somewhere,” Rogers said wryly. “I will do the best I can to catch up.”
With his more conservative stance, Rogers has a better chance of pulling out a victory in November than the comparatively liberal Bothwell, according to political observers.
“I am more consistent with the views of this district than probably Mr. Bothwell will be,” Rogers said, citing his affiliation as a Blue Dog Democrat like Shuler.
Rogers declined to say how much he has raised during his first week of campaigning.
“I certainly will have a well-funded campaign and a well-run campaign,” Rogers said.
The seasoned campaign veteran already has a couple of paid staff members, including Shuler’s former communication officer Andrew Whalen, and two-dozen active volunteers.
“Just getting out there. I started that now. (But), I am not starting at scratch,” he said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Shuler’s endorsement is what may take Rogers the furthest.
Shuler brought Rogers on as his campaign manager in his first bid for office in 2006 after firing his first campaign manager.
“I wanted people who weren’t yes people. I wanted people who were straight forward and honest who could make me a better candidate and better member of Congress,” Shuler said.
Shuler credits Rogers with helping pull off his win over longtime incumbent Charles Taylor six years ago, despite everyone being novices.
“Consider this: we ran against a 16-year incumbent with all the money in the world and we didn’t have one person who had ever been involved in a campaign before except one, and he had never won one,” Shuler reflected.
Rogers will face at least two other opponents during the Democratic primary. In addition to Bothwell, two lesser-known candidates have announced they will run: Heath Wynn of Caldwell County and Tom Hill of Henderson County.
Wynn was a teacher in the sociology department at Catawba Valley Community College.
Crowded field shows no signs of thinning out in GOP race for Congress
Republicans seeking the 11th District congressional seat are trying to find ways before May’s primary to stand out and attract voters amid a crowded field of nine candidates.
Candidates began actively campaign toward the end of last year, traveling from county-to-county speaking and glad-handing.
“I think what you’ve got to do is you got to show up in all 17 counties so much that they don’t know that you aren’t from there,” said conservative candidate Mark Meadows from Cashiers. “You can’t ignore any county.”
Competitors also must line up endorsements from former politicians and notable district residents to distinguish themselves from the main field.
Tea party candidate Dan Eichenbaum has gathered two Tea Party endorsements — one from the Asheville Tea Party Political Action Committee and another from Cherokee County’s Tea Party. Eichenbaum is going into the race with name recognition, after running two years ago and coming in second for the Republican nomination.
However, he hasn’t recieved the support of the Republican Party establishment, at least judging by the three top-picks of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The national party support arm for GOP Congressional candidates has tapped Meadows, Jeff Hunt of Hendersonville and Ethan Wingfield of Asheville as “Young Guns,” marking them as candidates with promise within the party.
Meadows has already received several endorsements — among them perhaps the crowned-jewel endorsement of the race, that of Jeff Miller, last year’s Republican nominee who went up against Shuler and gained wide name recognition. Others include retired state Sen. Jimmy Jacimun and former Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin, among others.
While newcomer Ethan Wingfield has not announced any endorsements so far, he has been able to collect an impressive $204,019 from more than 100 contributors despite declaring his candidacy 10 days prior to the deadline for submitting end-of-the-year campaign contribution reports. Wingfield, a young, conservative, Christian businessman and entrepreneur from Buncombe County, could pose a threat, taking precious fundraising dollars away from his competitors.
Meanwhile, candidate Jeff Hunt has argued that he is the “only one who has a record — a consistently conservative record” as a district attorney for 18 years. Similar to Wingfield and Meadows, Hunt has touted himself as the conservative, Christian candidate who will fight for small businesses and cut government regulations that inhibit job growth.
“I think people will need to make a decision on who is the true compassionate conservative candidate,” Meadows said. Meadows is a former restaurant owner in Highlands and is now a real estate developer in Cashiers.
With three likeminded contenders, the primary vote could split two or three ways among mainstream Republicans. That could give Eichenbaum with his Tea Party backers a chance at victory.
During the last primary in 2010, moderate Republican Jeff Miller received 14,059 votes, and Eichenbaum received 11,949 votes — a little more than a 2,000-vote difference. However, Meadows contends that Eichenbaum has lost some of his footing since that race.
“Some of the advantage that Dan Eichenbaum had in the last election he lost because he didn’t support the nominee,” he said.
Meadows said Eichenbaum and Hunt are a concern but that he will campaign to make sure neither receives the majority vote.
“We don’t see Mr. Wingfield as much a competitor as Jeff Hunt or Dr. Dan,” Meadows said. “We have been, and we will continue, to out work them.”
No matter who wins, the Republican Party will need to band together to support and promote their candidate.
The party “will be uniting behind whoever the Republican candidate is after the primary,” said Dave Sawyer, head of the 11th District’s Republican Party, adding that party leaders are already looking toward the fall competition.
“You want to lay as much groundwork as possible,” Sawyer said.
Meet the candidates
A Republican congressional candidate forum will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17 in Bryson City. The following candidates have committed to coming: Spence Campbell, Dan Eichenbaum, Jeff Hunt, Mark Meadows, Vance Patterson and Kenny West.
Prior to the forum, people will have a chance to mingle with the candidates and enjoy refreshments, starting at 6 p.m.
The Shuler effect: Democrats face uphill battle to hang on to seat
The race for the Congressional seat representing Western North Carolina was flipped on its head last week when incumbent U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, announced he would not seek re-election this year — leaving no heir apparent within his party.
“It is somewhat difficult for the Democrats to find someone at this late date to run,” said Tommy Jenkins, former Democratic state senator and state representative in Macon County. “The Republican candidates, some of them, have been out there campaigning for a year.”
The Republican side of the race was already overcrowded with at least eight people declaring that they will run. But now, with Shuler out of the picture, the election is anyone’s game.
“(Shuler’s decision) changes everything,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
The Republican primary was already hotly contested, and that won’t change, according to Jeff Hunt, a Republican candidate from Brevard. But the Republican nominee will no longer have to do battle with Shuler come the general election.
SEE ALSO: As Shuler steps down to spend time with family, finding a Shuler-esque candidate to fill the void has Democrats scrambling
“It makes November a different ball game,” said Hunt.
The lack of a frontrunner for the Democratic Party could mean that the seat falls under Republican control.
“Shuler is the one Democrat in my mind who had a chance,” Cooper said. “One, he was extremely moderate. Two, he has the name recognition. Three, he had a fundraising advantage.”
Even if Shuler betroths his war chest to a candidate who is Shuler-esque in their political views, they still won’t have the name recognition that Shuler did — not given his football stardom on top of Congressman status.
While a replacement Democrat might be coming from behind in the name recognition field, so are all the Republican challengers, Shuler pointed out.
“The Republican candidates, no one has ever heard of them at all,” Shuler said.
Thus far, Asheville resident Cecil Bothwell is the only Democrat to officially declare his candidacy. He was already planning to run in the Democratic Primary against Shuler. Bothwell is considerably more liberal than Shuler, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, and faces overwhelming odds in a historically conservative district.
“I don’t understand how Bothwell has much of a chance here,” Cooper said.
Despite this, with Shuler out of the running, Bothwell said he is confident that he will compete in November’s election.
“That is good news for the campaign,” he said. “I look forward to being the nominee of the Democratic Party for Congress in 11th District.”
But, a wide-open seat could draw a number of potential candidates out of the woodwork before the candidate filing period closes at the end of the month.
So far, however, Shuler’s Chief of Staff Hayden Rogers is the only Democrat to say he is considering a run for Shuler’s seat. (See related article)
Despite a relative lack of name recognition, Rogers is a conservative Democrat and could potentially garner votes from across the political spectrum similar to Shuler.
A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.
The Democratic nominee — no matter who it is — will have a tough battle ahead in the November election.
“Of course the election will be difficult. It’s always difficult,” said Luke Hyde, head of the Democratic Party in the 11th District. But, “We expect to win in the fall.”
But the 11th-hour bomb dropped by Shuler hasn’t done his party any favors.
“I think he’s done a tremendous injustice to the Democrats for announcing so late,” said Ralph Slaughter, Jackson County GOP chair. “This assures (Republicans) of a victory in 2012.”
Last year, the state reshuffled the 11th District, cutting the liberal-concentrated Asheville out of the district and stirring in four Republican-leaning counties. Now, only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, compared to 43 percent prior to the redistricting.
“This Republican redistricting was masterful,” Cooper said. “It is shocking at how good a job they did to take a state that was about 50-50 Democrat Republican and draw districts that will result in a state with about three Democrats in (U.S.) Congress.”
However, the district is still home to a decent bloc of unaffiliated voters who could sway the election either way.
“You never take for granted that a Republican is going to win even if it has been redrawn,” Hunt said.
The head of the district’s Republican Party said that Shuler bowing out of the competition does not ensure a Republican victory. However, it does improve the odds.
“That fact that it is an open seat rather than an incumbent … can’t help but encourage the Republicans,” said Dave Sawyer, an attorney from Bryson City. “I think we are more optimistic about being able to do so now.”
Mark Meadows, a Republican candidate from Jackson County, agreed with Sawyer.
It would be a “great mistake” to think the election is a cinch now, Meadows said. However, “You look at it as a much easier campaign.”
One obstacle that still faces Republicans is the current size of its candidate pool.
“I think the field right now is extremely large,” Meadows said.
At least eight Republicans are currently battling for the nomination, and the party will need to narrow the field and focus on beefing up the profile of a few candidates.
Shuler is not the only prominent Democrat from North Carolina who decided to retire this year.
Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue announced in late January that she would not seek re-election. Perdue served only one-term as governor, but it was plagued by battles with the Republican-controlled state legislature.
And, just a month prior, long-time N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, divulged that his 14-year stint in politics would come to an end this year. The nearly 76-year-old state representative decided to retire to spend more time with his grandchildren and possibly travel.
These retirements leave their vacant positions in limbo.
“It is not a good sign for the Democratic party in North Carolina,” Cooper said. The state is shifting from the “old solid democratic South” to “a state dominated by the Republican party.”
In the case of the governor’s race, there is no standout candidate or frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, whereas Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, seems the natural choice for the Republican Party. McCrory made a good showing during the last gubernatorial race against Perdue.
“I would be very surprised if the Democrats pulled out a victory in the governor’s mansion in November,” Cooper said.
Family first: As Shuler steps down to spend time with family, finding a Shuler-esque candidate to fill the void has Democrats scrambling.
When Coach Boyce Dietz got a call from his former standout quarterback Heath Shuler asking him to meet for breakfast at Clyde’s Restaurant one morning several years ago, Dietz dutifully got in the car and headed toward Waynesville to hear what was on the mind of his old Swain County High football player gone-pro.
“I always told my players if you ever need to talk about anything through the years, no matter how much time has passed, to just give me a call,” Dietz said. He will never forget what came next as they dug into their biscuits and gravy at the roadside diner.
“He said, ‘Coach I’m, thinking about running for Congress,’” Dietz recounted. Needless to say, it was the first time one of his players had leveled that particular question.
Dietz offered some sage advice. Shuler’s children were just 2 and 5 at the time. Dietz warned him the toughest part of the job wouldn’t be anything that happened in Washington, but what he was missing out on back home.
Six years later, it seems Dietz was right. Shuler is throwing in the towel on his congressional career representing North Carolina’s 11th District, trading in the long trips back and forth to Washington for more time at home in Waynesville with his wife and kids, now 7 and 10.
SEE ALSO: Democrats face uphill battle to hang on to seat
“It feels like time has just flown by,” said Shuler, 40. “They are growing up, and I don’t want to miss those moments.”
Shuler said the decision came out of heart-to-heart talks with his wife, Nikol, as he contemplated whether to run for governor following the recent and equally surprising news that Gov. Beverly Perdue will step down.
The suddenness of Shuler’s announcement has sent shock waves through the Democratic Party, left in the lurch without an heir apparent who is prepped and ready to fill the void.
“I wish we’d had a little more advance notice that the Congressman wasn’t going to run,” said Brian McMahan, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, who added that as a new father himself, he understands Shuler’s decision.
Shuler’s announcement came less than two weeks before the mandatory sign-up period for candidates to declare their intentions to run.
Shuler has gotten some backlash from Democrats who feel slighted by his 11th-hour decision. While a darling among moderates, Shuler has learned to accept the black sheep status from elements in his own party who reject him for being too conservative.
“I wasn’t Democratic enough, but now they want me back,” Shuler joked.
Mostly, however, Shuler said he has had a humbling outpouring of support from well-wishers from both parties. Shuler was one of the true middle-of-the-aisle members of Congress. In his last two years he served as the leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, an alliance of moderate Democrats in Congress.
“Republican House members have said ‘Please don’t leave, please don’t leave,’” Shuler said. “And, of course, all my Blue Dog guys.”
Rather than guilt him into staying on, however, those bidding Shuler farewell have largely enforced that his decision is the right one.
“So many have said don’t miss that time, you never get that childhood back. Those times are gone forever,” Shuler said.
Shuler has spent the past six years living a double life of sorts — flying to Washington Monday morning to do his job as a congressman and returning late Thursday night for a weekend as a family man.
Nikol’s parents live in Waynesville and serve as a support network when Shuler is out of town. But raising two kids alone for much of the week is hard work, Shuler said. He won’t forget his first solo stint with the kids one weekend when his wife had commitments of her own. He found himself wondering how in the world she did it.
“There is nothing like the two of us being together and to share the load and the work that it takes to raise kids,” Shuler said.
Spending time with family has become a cliché status often cited by people stepping down from a job.
“I think people use that as an excuse,” said Dietz, who joined Shuler’s staff as a field representative on the ground in the seven western counties. “I think it is a cop out a lot of the time, but I don’t really think it is with him. It really bothered him when we would go out the door on Monday morning and his kids would cry.
“He had a choice to make and he put his family before his job,” Dietz said.
Tough road to re-election
Political observers, however, question whether Shuler was simply fearful of losing this year’s election. Congressional lines were re-drawn this year by a Republican-led General Assembly, making Shuler’s district decidedly more conservative.
But Dietz doubts a fear of losing the race led to Shuler’s decision. Shuler won re-election easily in 2008 and even in 2010 — a dismal year for Democrats by all accounts but one that Shuler survived with hardly a battle scar to show for it. He beat his Republican challenger by 20,000 votes with 54 percent of the ballots.
But, there’s no question the fight to win would have been much tougher this time.
“I think he knew it was going to be a really hard campaign, and it was going to take a lot of time,” Dietz said. “He realized he was really going to be away.”
The new district lines cut Asheville out of Western North Carolina like a bite out of an apple. Asheville’s large bloc of Democratic voters were swapped out for the markedly conservative-leaning voters in Avery, Mitchell, Burke and Caldwell counties.
“I can’t believe he didn’t do the math and figure out it was going to be a lot harder,” said Chris Cooper, a political analyst and professor at Western Carolina University.
Shuler, however, says he wasn’t daunted.
“I know what my polling numbers were,” Shuler said.
Just because the new district includes more Republicans doesn’t mean they would have necessarily supported his opponent, said Shuler, who has gotten votes from a lot of Republicans in each of his previous elections.
“Graham County is a perfect example of a county that is a so-called Republican county and we won it by 66 percent of the vote,” Shuler said of the 2010 election.
Dietz believes Shuler could have kept the seat as long as he wanted it — although he never would have guessed it sitting in Clyde’s Restaurant that morning six years ago.
Dietz admits he was doubtful Shuler could unseat the powerful, wealthy, longtime Congressman Charles Taylor, R-Brevard.
“I told him it would be an uphill battle. Nobody else has been able to even come close to doing this. You have never even been in politics before,” Dietz recalled saying.
Dietz’s mind was whirling with all the issues Shuler would have to brush up on, from obscure historical factoids to foreign policy.
“I was thinking how in the world can you prepare yourself for that?” Dietz said. “He proved he to be a quick learner on a lot of things.”
Still, Dietz said he was surprised when Shuler actually pulled off a victory over Taylor in 2006. And he wasn’t the only one.
“On paper, no Democrat should have won this district,” said Cooper.
Once in office, the surprises kept coming.
“Your preconception is we got us a big, dumb football player, but to anyone who had that preconceived notion, it turned out that this guy was sharp as a tack, and he really got it,” said Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville. “I found him to be one of the quickest studies in politics I’ve ever met.”
Shuler quickly made a name for himself and began wearing the title of congressman with confidence.
“I think he was more effective than one would expect a freshman congressman to have been,” said Mark Swanger, the chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners and a Democrat. “I do think he established a higher profile than one would expect in his short tenure.”
Swanger said he is very disappointed Shuler is dropping out of Congress, a sentiment echoed time and again since the news broke last week.
“I really, really regret that he is not running again because he is good at what he does,” said Luke Hyde, an attorney in Shuler’s hometown of Bryson City and head of the Democratic Party in the 15-county congressional district.
Blue Dog at heart
Shuler’s ability to win and retain a seat in Congress as a Democrat from a conservative mountain district is a testament to his middle-of-the-road philosophy. He is pro-gun, pro-life and doesn’t support gay marriage. He voted against health care reform and against federal bailouts, winning the title as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.
“I think he found a voice for the people of Western North Carolina that was right down the center. I certainly respected and admired that,” said Queen. “He struck a good balance.”
Republicans aren’t exactly chirping a chorus of “good riddance” over Shuler’s departure.
“I think Heath did a good job,” said Floyd Rogers, owner of Haywood Insurance in Waynesville and a Republican. “He tried to vote the heart and the conscious of the people in his district. It was a very difficult thing for Heath to balance. Overall, I would give him a good rating.”
For counties west of Asheville, having a congressman from their neck of the woods was a nice change in a political landscape increasingly dominated by metro population centers.
“Heath is the kind of person you could just pick up the phone and reach him or he would call you right back,” said Swanger.
From his own staff to political opponents, the sheer number of people who refer to him as “Heath” — not congressman and certainly not Mr. Shuler — is in itself a testament to his approachable persona.
“There was one thing I always thought about Heath,” Dietz said. “I thought he was a better person than he was a football player, and he was a heck of a football player.”
Unlike some athletes who think they are above their peers at school, Shuler always gave his teammates credit and went out of his way to reach out to the younger kids, Dietz said.
Shuler remembers going out to dinner with his parents after a football game his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, being constantly interrupted by people wanting his autograph. When Shuler gave a sigh under his breath, his mom looked at him and told him that one day he would look back and wish people still wanted his autograph like they used to.
He never forgot his mom’s words that night, and it helped shape the gracious and humble personality he still exhibits.
Shuler says he’ll miss the camaraderie of other congressman more than anything else about the job. He equated it to the locker room fellowship of other football players, which is precisely what he missed most after exiting his pro football career following an injury.
“As much as people want to demonize members of Congress, the truth is there are some great, quality people,” Shuler said. “As a whole we don’t poll very well, but individually, there are great guys.”
But, Shuler had disdain for what he called the gamesmanship of politics in D.C.
“I had people who wouldn’t even shake my hand in a public setting because they knew I was a Democrat. I was like, really? Really?” Shuler said. “I am glad I won’t have to put up with it any longer.”
Queen wondered whether the toxic political atmosphere is partly to blame for Shuler walking away.
“Given the tenure in Washington, I am sure it has not been fun,” Queen said.
Shuler, a devout Christian, rented a room in a D.C. house run by a religious group for congressmen. His roommates are all currently Republicans.
While Shuler is conservative as far as most Democrats go, not all Republicans were willing to embrace him as one of their own. Jeff Norris, a Republican attorney in Waynesville, hopes to see a Republican win the seat, something that will certainly be easier with Shuler out of the way.
“Hopefully the next representative will help the district and country solve some of the critical issues facing us,” Norris said, questioning whether Shuler has any tangible accomplishments from his six years in Congress.
Dietz said the national deficit weighed heavily on Shuler and indeed became one of his leading causes in Washington in recent years. During the height of the deficit talks last fall, when the so-called Super Committee was wrestling with how to trim the budget by a $1.5 trillion, Shuler amassed the “Go Big” coalition — urging the committee to instead trim the deficit by $4 trillion during the next decade. He ultimately got 150 members from both parties in the House and Senate to sign on.
“He felt so strong about the deficit and the threat to the country,” Dietz said.
Filling Shuler’s shoes
With news of Shuler’s departure less than a week old, no Democrats have yet emerged to run for the seat other than Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville city councilman who was already in the race and planned to challenge Shuler in the Democratic primary.
But, Bothwell’s more liberal stance than Shuler may not go over with the district’s conservative leanings, leaving Democrats in a quandary in finding a candidate they think has a shot at winning. Meanwhile, Republican challengers for Shuler’s seat announced their intentions months ago. The frontrunners have campaign staffs assembled, headquarters humming, web sites up and running and fundraising well under way.
Cooper, the political analyst and public policy professor at Western Carolina University, doesn’t give the Democrats much hope.
“It is going to be darn near impossible,” Cooper said. “Ideologically, I can’t imagine anyone who is going to line up with the district the way Shuler did.”
But, there may be one. Hayden Rogers, Shuler’s chief of staff, is contemplating a run.
Rogers grew in the small town of Robbinsville and like Shuler played football in high school, but on an opposing team. Hardly rivals now, however, Rogers is Shuler’s closest advisor and political strategist, commuting back and forth to D.C. from his home in Murphy.
Rogers can walk both walks. He grew hunting squirrels and fishing in the mountains with his grandfather, yet went on to major in political science at Princeton, where he also played football.
“He would be an extremely strong candidate,” Shuler said.
Shuler’s endorsement of his own chief of staff has led some to speculate as to whether he intentionally timed the announcement of his decision not to run at this late stage in order to give Rogers a leg up. While any other Democrat would have to scramble to get a campaign rolling, Rogers would arguably have an easier time of it as Shuler’s anointed replacement, potentially inheriting a good share of Shuler’s half-million dollar war chest and many of his campaign workers.
Shuler said there was no plan to hand the seat to Rogers. In fact, Shuler didn’t know Rogers might be interested until after he made the announcement last Thursday.
Rogers approached him later that evening and asked “What would you think if I ran in your spot?” Shuler recounted.
If stepping down indeed was part of a grand plan, it was a well-kept secret indeed.
“I was totally shocked to learn Heath Shuler wasn’t going to run. I’ve not talked to anyone who knew it was coming,” said Jean Ellen Forrister, active party Democrat in Jackson County.
From Democratic insiders to Shuler’s own staff, the announcement came as a surprise.
Dietz says he didn’t know Shuler was planning to step down until he called an all-staff video conference last Thursday.
“None of us definitely knew, but we all had a bad feeling about it,” Dietz said of those hours leading up to the conference call. “It depresses me to think about not being able to do this anymore.”
Shuler pointed out he isn’t quitting tomorrow. He still has another 11 months to go — 11 more months to hit his favorite DC restaurant, Oceanaire, an upscale seafood restaurant popular in political circles. And 11 more months to represent the people of the 11th District.