Congressional candidates up the ante on campaign forum circuit

fr meadowsrogersAlthough the candidates running for U.S. Congress remained cordial on the surface, neither passed up the opportunity to get in jabs here and there during a Macon County League of Women Voters forum last week.

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.

 

Campaign fundraising

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.

828.488.2842 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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.

Shuler leads national call for much larger debt cuts

Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is leading a bipartisan call, asking the joint super committee to spare nothing in its cuts to the U.S. deficit.

“It will be heard throughout the world that we can do something together,” Shuler said in a phone interview, “and work for the united good of this nation.”

A Nov. 2 bipartisan letter signed by 100 members of Congress asks the super committee tasked with recommending budget solutions in Washington to cut $4 trillion rather than the mandated $1.2 trillion.

Analyses by multiple economic, partisan and bipartisan groups say the U.S must cut its deficit spending and place the amount of the cuts near $4 trillion, said Shuler.

The letter is not specific about what should be trimmed but states that the committee should keep all types of mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues.

“You can’t do one without the other,” Shuler said. “It has to be a combination of both.”

The committee, comprised of Senate and House of Representatives members, must create a plan by Nov. 23. Failure to do so will result in across-the-board cuts in 2013.

No compromise means “the political parties have won, and America has lost,” Shuler said.

Shuler has staked himself out as a moderate in his seven years in office, despite his formal label as a Democrat. He is also a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats in Congress that claim to rise above the political fray.

The letter was co-authored by Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) and signed by 100 members of Congress, including David Price, Howard Coble, Mike McIntrye and Mel Watt.

“We write to you as a bipartisan group of representatives from across the political spectrum in the belief that the success of your committee is vital to our country’s future,” states the letter. “We know that many in Washington and around the country do not believe we in the Congress and those within your committee can successfully meet this challenge. We believe that we can and we must.”

Shuler getting comfortable in new position

In his initial bid for political office, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., often seemed unsure of himself.

The former NFL quarterback, while clearly comfortable in the limelight, had difficulty articulating his political beliefs and staking out positions. Back in 2006 there were jokes among reporters about the difficult task of extracting printable quotes from the Swain County native, who now lives in Haywood County.

That was then.

These days, Shuler, who turns 39 this month, seems transformed. Leading up to the Nov. 2 election, he displayed intellectual agility and political aggressiveness in debates with Republican challenger Jeff Miller, who often relied on notes to combat the incumbent’s grasp of current issues. After trouncing Miller and winning his third term in office, Shuler turned his attention toward elevating his standing in the Democratic Party, left stumbling for answers following a thrashing in the midterm elections.

This time, Shuler took a calculated loss. He challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the soon-to-be-open position of minority leader. Pelosi, speaker of the House, has been demonized as a liberal harridan by her Republican foes. Democrats had to defend against being paired with her by opponents during the election. Even Shuler, pro-life and pro-gun Blue Dog Democrat that he is, felt the need to run ads declaring: “I am not Nancy Pelosi.”

“I can add and subtract,” Shuler said of his challenge to Pelosi. “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.”

That would be because the leadership, as personified by Pelosi, needs to be more moderate and centrist, Shuler said. Just like him.

And just like that, Shuler emerged a player on the national stage. He was interviewed on CNN and other major networks and cable shows. He was featured in news articles from sea to shining sea, quoted on the front pages of the nation’s greatest newspapers. Not bad for a boy from the mountains of Western North Carolina who could play a bit of football.

It certainly doesn’t hurt Shuler’s prospects that his now-polished speaking abilities are complemented by a winning political combination of awe-shucks country boy manners and photogenic good looks.

 

“Big tent” sure has a nice ring

The vote came on Nov. 17. Shuler versus Pelosi was not exactly David and Goliath, but those underdog overtones were evident in the news coverage that followed. As predicted, Shuler lost, 150 to 43, by secret ballot.

Shuler promptly expressed surprise he’d received so many votes, spinning defeat into a good college try. After all, he pointed out to various news agencies, the caucus he represents, the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, shrank from 54 to 25 members in the midterm election.

That’s one of the more interesting aspects of covering Shuler these days: His ability to spin the news, plus stay on message. He finds a sound bite that works and delivers it, over and over again:

• The Huffington Post, Nov. 14: “You know, I can add and subtract pretty well. I don’t have the numbers to be able to win, but I think it’s a proven point for moderates and the Democrat Party that we have to be a big tent.”

• Politics Daily, Nov. 15: “I can add and subtract pretty well. I don’t have the numbers to be able to win, but I think it’s a proven point for moderates and the Democrat Party that we have to be a big tent. We have to be all-inclusive. We have to invite everyone into the party.”

• Asheville Citizen-Times, Nov. 18: “We are strong because we are a big-tent party, not in spite of it.”

• To The Smoky Mountain News on his defeat: “We are the big tent party. I wanted to make sure our corner of the tent still stands strong.”

 

A liberal in sheep’s clothing?

Boyce Deitz is one of the most accomplished football coaches in WNC. He guided Swain County High School to five state championships, getting help from Shuler for three of those. Today, the shoe is on the other foot, with Deitz working for his former player as a field representative out of an office in Sylva.

Deitz is pleased, but not particularly surprised, to see his former football player blossom into his role as congressman.

“When he was in school he was a good student, but it didn’t come easily to him,” Deitz said. “Heath knew if he wanted to accomplish some of his goals, he had to make good grades.”

To that end, Deitz clearly remembers Shuler sitting in the school’s library putting in the necessary time studying. Shuler applied that willingness to work on the football field, as well as the classroom. Shuler focused on his weaknesses instead of glorying in his gifts. He strengthened his vast natural athletic talent, and became even better.

“I just see that same thing in him now,” Deitz said of Shuler’s ability to define goals and focus on them.

The longtime coach added he believes the former football star suffered a bad case of nerves early in his political career, but has since been able to settle down and find a comfortable stride.

After attending Swain County High School, Shuler became a standout football player for the University of Tennessee. He was a runner-up in 1993 for the Heisman Trophy. After leaving the NFL he returned to the University of Tennessee to finish a degree in psychology. He built a real-estate business in Knoxville, and moved to Waynesville in 2003.

Not everyone is as enamored of Shuler as his former coach. Kirkwood Callahan, a former college political science professor who serves as an officer in the Haywood County Republican Party, believes Shuler is guilty of posturing.

“If Shuler is a committed moderate why did he vote for Pelosi as speaker twice before?” Callahan said. “Shuler is what he is — an inconsistent opportunist who will enable the advancement of the liberal agenda in the House of Representatives when it is essential to retain favor with leftist party leaders. When there is nothing to lose with the leadership, he will resume his charade as a moderate.”

Callahan cited votes of support on cap-and-trade legislation (limits on carbon emissions, with permits for emissions issued that allows companies to buy and sell them) and card check (majority sign-up, a method for workers to organize into a labor union), saying it would have deprived workers of a secret ballot in union-organizing drives.

 

The inner game of politics

“I think when he came to Congress, people did see him as a retired NFL quarterback,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark. “Now they see Heath as a national leader. He’s gone from being able to hold a football to holding a mike.”

Ross and Shuler are the newly minted co-chairs of the greatly diminished Blue Dog Coalition. They are also good buddies, with Ross characterizing the N.C. representative as one of his best friends in the Congress.

Ross, first elected to the House in 2000, has made no secret that his long-term goal is to help lead his home state of Arkansas. The only question is the timing of his move from national to state politics.

Shuler isn’t publicly stating what career trajectory he is seeking, though he seems much more enamored with national party politics than Ross. It is dead certain, however, that Shuler has crystal-clear goals in mind. And whatever his other shortcomings might or might not be, the football player-turned-congressman is like a chicken on a June bug once he’s focused. And these days, Shuler is looking very focused indeed.

“The game in Washington is about getting re-elected and gaining power,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University who helps oversee a nonpartisan N.C. politics blog for the school’s Public Policy Institute. “Shuler’s move to run for Pelosi’s seat accomplishes both.”

The 11th Congressional District, made up of North Carolina’s 15 westernmost counties, is essentially a conservative Democratic district, Cooper said. There might be more Democrats than Republicans, but by the same token, they are decidedly not Nancy Pelosi Democrats.

“Running against Pelosi sends a strong message to Shuler’s constituents that a vote for him is not a vote for Nancy Pelosi,” Cooper said. “That helps him carry over a major theme from the election and build a name brand for his next re-election. This move also accomplishes the second goal — power.”

The traditional method of gaining power is to pay your dues and work up a ladder based on seniority, the political science professor said. By going directly to the people, Shuler worked around this system, al la Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s.

“By running for minority leader, Shuler’s been covered in virtually every major newspaper and media source in the country,” Cooper said. “Heath Shuler’s now a household name — and not just for football.”

 

 

What are the Blue Dogs?

The Democratic Blue Dog Coalition 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. Heath Shuler, formerly Blue Dog whip, now is a co-chair of the coalition.

Page 4 of 4
Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.