Despite his limited name recognition and his significantly smaller war chest, Cecil Bothwell is confident he can outrun U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler during next May’s primary race for the 11th Congressional District’s Democratic nomination.
“I would not be doing it if I did not intend to win,” said Bothwell, a city councilman and former newspaper reporter in Asheville.
Bothwell and Shuler are at opposite ends of the Democratic spectrum, with Bothwell in the liberal corner and Shuler in the more conservative camp. Should Bothwell make it past the primary, however, he is not concerned about how his liberal leanings or Asheville ties will play with the region’s rural and historically conservative mountain voters.
“I think I am more likely to win in November than he is,” Bothwell said.
In past elections, Shuler, D-Waynesville, has demonstrated an ability to curry favor with voters from both political parties.
A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an astonishing anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.
Shuler said Bothwell would be unlikely to pick up the necessary independent or conservative voters in a general election.
“They won’t get any support from the other side on any issue they have,” Shuler said.
Bothwell originally planned to run as an independent but found the requirements to get his name on the ballot overwhelming.
“When I began to explore the possibility, it turned out I would need to collect something close to 20,000 verified signatures,” Bothwell said.
Bothwell added it would be “very, very difficult to win” with three candidates vying for the position.
Bothwell decided to run against Shuler in March after the three-term congressman voted against key bills in the national Democratic agenda: namely health care reform and the federal stimulus bill.
“I decided somebody had to run against him,” Bothwell said.
Name recognition could be Bothwell’s biggest challenge if he hopes to defeat Shuler, said Chris Cooper, a political science professor from Western Carolina University.
“I think that is a major reason why incumbents win,” Cooper said.
As a former editor at the Mountain Xpress and member of the Asheville City Council, Bothwell is known in Buncombe County. However, it is unknown how many voters outside of Asheville recognize Bothwell as compared to Shuler — an incumbent and revered football hero.
Last election, however, a relatively unknown candidate from Asheville pulled down nearly 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and carried Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.
Shuler’s conservative stance helps him during the general election but drags down his primary numbers. Democratic voters punished Shuler during the last primary for not being liberal enough.
The fact that a “newcomer to politics” received such as large percent of the votes “indicates widespread dissatisfaction” among 11th District Democrats, Bothwell said.
But, the same dip in poll numbers did not hold true in the general election.
Shuler handily won re-election by more than 20,000 votes in 2010 against Republican Jeff Miller of Hendersonville.
“We went through the most difficult election in history for Democrats, and we still won by 10 percent,” Shuler said. “We feel very good.”
But, the primary race could also force Shuler, who has received flack for his not-always-party-line voting record, to prove he is a Democrat by taking a leftist standpoint, Cooper said.
And, that could come back to bite him in the general election.
“In some ways, the best thing for the Republican Party is for Cecil Bothwell to do well,” Cooper said.
While Bothwell has already started his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Shuler said he does not expect to spend much time or money running a primary race.
“Campaign mode does not kick in til August,” Shuler said.
Until then, Shuler said he will continue to do what he was elected to do — work.
“You still have to focus on the job at hand,” Shuler said. “Being placed on the budget committee … takes priority over fundraising.”
Shuler said he thinks the new district make-up gives him an advantage over the more liberal Bothwell now that Asheville, a traditionally liberal sect of voters, has been cut out.
Shuler said the district has “a Blue Dog type make-up,” referring to the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats in Washington that Shuler heads.
Asheville booted out
Come Election Day, Bothwell won’t be able to vote for himself.
Although he is still legally allowed to run for its congressional seat, Bothwell no longer lives in the district he hopes to represent.
Every 10 years, the lines for Congressional districts are redrawn following the national census, to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of voters.
The re-organization of the 11th District added several Republican-leaning counties and carved out Asheville’s liberal voters.
Now, the district is 38 percent registered Republicans and only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, a possibly election-making difference when compared to the 43 percent who were registered Democrats before the re-organization. That means the general election could be decided by the 26 percent of unaffiliated voters that making up the remaining portion.
Meanwhile, Asheville was shunted into the 10th Congressional district, which is already a Republican stronghold and could absorb Asheville’s Democratic voting bloc without tipping the scales.
Bothwell chose not to run in the 10th District, which reaches from the foothills to the outskirts of Charlotte, because he does not agree with how the state’s congressional districts were redrawn. State law does not require a candidate to live in the Congressional district he represents.
“The fact that the headstrong Republican idiots in Raleigh have temporarily tried to move Asheville into the Piedmont is laughable,” Bothwell said.
Bothwell still considers himself a resident of the 11th Congressional District even though the maps say otherwise. He hopes it won’t be the case for long.
“I will do all I can to speed the redrawing of district maps to reflect reality. In the meantime, I aim to represent my people, the people of the western counties, in Washington,” Bothwell said.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face one of at least eight Republican candidates that have joined the race. The Republican candidate will face slightly better odds this election as a result of the re-organization of the congressional district.