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