Shuler selects a familiar face to help bid for national prominence

Andrew Whalen, an up-and-coming political insider who helped craft U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler’s entry onto the political scene five years ago, has rejoined the congressman’s staff.

Whalen, 30, announced he would leave his position as executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party at the beginning of the year. He will take charge of Shuler’s leadership political action committee, 3rd and Long.

Shuler was a Swain County High School football standout who went on to play for the University of Tennessee and the NFL.

Whalen, an Ohio native, served as the young congressman’s deputy campaign manager in 2006 and as his campaign manager in 2008. The state party, like the national Democratic Party, took a whipping from Republicans during the midterm elections. Democrats lost control of the state General Assembly, both the House and the Senate, for the first time in more than a century. Nationally, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Following the state shellacking, N.C. Democratic Party Chairman David Young, a former Buncombe County commissioner, announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the post. With the party’s executive committee set to meet in late January to choose Young’s replacement, some N.C. Democratic Party staffers in Raleigh promptly started searching for new jobs.

Whalen, however, said he wasn’t forced off the staff. Whalen said he chose to leave because he believes in Shuler’s ability to help a wounded national Democratic party find common ground and rebuild its membership base.

In short, Shuler’s determination to help Democrats regain control in Washington, D.C., simply drew him back, Whalen said.

“As he started expanding his national profile we started talking about this,” said Whalen, who will also serve as a senior advisor to the congressman. “He wants to win that majority back — and I certainly wanted to be part of his team.”

Shuler took a calculated loss in a bid to oust U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for House Democratic leader. His gains on the national stage were huge in terms of coast-to-coast coverage by television and newspapers — the party leadership fight took place during what is traditionally a slow news cycle between the November elections and the holidays.

Shuler took advantage of the national exposure to blame Democrats themselves for the beating they took at the polls. The party has moved too far left, he said, and needs to move toward the center. That’s where Shuler himself — a conservative Blue Dog Democrat — resides politically.

Shuler handily won reelection in the 11th Congressional District over Republican challenger Jeff Miller. The 11th Congressional District is made up of the state’s westernmost counties.

“It would be hard to find a Democrat whose stock has risen more in the last few months than Heath Shuler,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University who helps oversee a blog on state politics for the school’s Public Policy Institute. “His ploy to feign a run for minority leader achieved its goal — to raise his national profile. He could never win and he knew that. Nonetheless, his move was brilliant political theatre and shows that you can be the winner in politics without actual winning the contest.”  

Politicians use leadership PACs such as the one Whalen will head to promote causes and like-minded candidates — usually by raising money. Whalen said he would oversee fundraising, recruitment, communications and Shuler’s political travel.

Though Whalen’s jump back to Shuler’s staff might look like the ultimate inside baseball, Cooper said it serves as an important signal about Shuler’s political aspirations. And it speaks to Democrats’ increasing faith in Shuler’s abilities to lead.

“Now he’s stolen the head of the state Democratic Party away,” Cooper said. “It’s unlikely Whalen would be leaving Raleigh unless he thought Shuler had a chance to be much more than a junior member from a relatively small district. Shuler clearly has an eye on the leadership, and as one of the only Democrats who can survive in a competitive district, there’s every reason to believe he’ll be successful sooner rather than later.”

Shuler now becomes co-chair of the Blue Dog Caucus, a step up from his former position as Blue Dog whip. Additionally, he has been elected to the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which selects which fellow party members serve on other House committees, and advises party leaders on policy.

 

It takes a village to tend a congressman

For all offices:

• Hayden Rogers, chief of staff

D.C. Office:

229 Cannon House Office Bldg.

Washington, D.C. 20515

Phone: 202.225.6401

Fax: 202.226.6422

• Julie Fishman, communications director and senior advisor

• Jed Bhuta, legislative director

• Erin Georges, legislative assistant

• Ryan Fitzpatrick, legislative assistant

• Whitney Mitchell, legislative assistant

• Grant Carlisle, staff assistant

Asheville District Office:

205 College St., Suite 100

Asheville, N.C. 28801

Phone: 828.252.1651

Fax: 828.252.8734

• Myrna Campbell, director of constituent services

• Chad Eaton, director of public affairs

• Kelly Sheehan, director of grants and special projects

• Shelley Townley, constituent liaison

• Erica Griffith, constituent services representative

• Kate Gunthorpe, veterans services representative

• Randy Flack, district field representative for the eastern counties

Sylva Office:

125 Bonnie Lane

Sylva, N.C. 28779

Phone: 828.586.1962 x223

• Boyce Deitz, district field representative for the western counties.

Murphy Office:

75 Peachtree St., Suite 100

Murphy, N.C. 28906

Phone: 828.835.4981

• Sandy Zimmerman, constituent services representative

Shuler is making the most of his opportunities

I don’t particularly remember U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, from our days growing up in Swain County. He is younger than I am by a few years, more my brother’s contemporary than mine.

His father delivered our mail. I don’t remember him at all. Most kids don’t pay attention to their postal carrier, and I was no exception.

I’ve never been an avid fan of the game of football, either. I did, however, take heed of Shuler’s career at the University of Tennessee and in the NFL. Somehow, because he was from Swain County, each time he threw or ran for a touchdown his athletic abilities seemed to reflect positively on us all. Though by then I wasn’t living in Western North Carolina, but downstate in Greensboro.

I remember feeling vaguely saddened when Shuler’s football career faltered and puttered out. For him, for me and for Swain County at large, our shared glory ended ignominiously with his foot injury.

There is something about a small school that makes you hyper-connect with others who attended the same school. Even now, in my mid 40s, I am the girl who went to Bryson City Elementary and Swain County High School, home of the Maroon Devils. And everyone who did the same, at about the same time, remains a classmate.

Since there were only 79 of us in my graduating class, you’d think it would be easy for me to remember who was there. It isn’t, though. I’m terrible at names and faces. This often proves embarrassing, because others don’t seem to have this problem. I’ll be in a grocery store and someone will say hello and use my nickname. Instantly I know they are from Swain County, and I start sorting through who they might be, hoping this wasn’t a particularly close high school friend I’ve inexplicably forgotten. But even if I can’t dredge up specific memories, the association of having been classmates creates bonds and commonalities.

Including, I must acknowledge, with Shuler, whom I’ve covered sporadically for various newspapers since he first ran for political office in 2006. I suspect he feels something along the same lines. There is a kinship, a shared history, and a common background. No matter that my politics and the congressman’s diverge sharply at points. Or that, as a journalist, my job is to monitor and report on how he performs his job representing us in Congress.

Still, all that said, I can’t help but admit to hoping Shuler does us proud.

The truth is the girl who went to Swain County High School doesn’t want Shuler to embarrass us on national television by saying something particularly stupid. As ridiculous as it seems, his mixing up North and South Korea, sounding like an illiterate hillbilly or doing a Dan Quayle and misspelling potato would reflect poorly on our schooling.

So I’m happy to note Shuler seems to have grown into his job, which is the subject of this week’s cover story. He is becoming an increasingly adept politician.

These days, when Shuler gives a speech, it no longer sounds like an approximation of the English language. There is actually a beginning, middle and an end, and even a message one can generally discern without undo straining.

Although I often don’t personally approve of the political stances he takes, I am happy Shuler is capable of articulating his beliefs. We might not have had debate classes at Swain County High School, or lessons in Latin. But all in all, we were given the tools to make of ourselves what we would. And Shuler, at least, is taking full advantage of every gift and tool he was given.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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.

Shuler didn’t fumble this time — Pelosi challenge sets the table for political prominence

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler took a calculated loss when he challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi for the position of House minority leader.

The payoff for losing? Shuler, the Democrat representing this region who is from Bryson City and now calls Waynesville home, emerged as an important national player in one of the biggest political games of them all. His voice and centrist position suddenly are important to the Democratic Party, which is battling internally to redefine itself following heavy midterm election losses.

“I can add and subtract,” Shuler said of the challenge to the soon-to-be former speaker of the House. “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.”

When the vote came last week, Shuler, as expected, lost big to Pelosi. But the Blue Dog Democrat garnered more than 20 percent of the votes. And he received a lot of airtime on national television and gobs of ink in prominent newspapers, coast to coast.

Shuler also was selected Blue Dog Co-Chair for Administration — a top leadership position of the coalition. The Blue Dogs 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.

Next week in The Smoky Mountain News, look for an in-depth profile of Shuler and his increasingly prominent national role.

Shuler keeps House seat

Despite an overwhelming Republican landslide in the 2010 congressional election, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-Waynesville) beat back challenger Jeff Miller of Hendersonville in the 11th District to win this third term in Congress.

Shuler, however, who had much more money than his opponent throughout the campaign, will go back to Washington as a member of the minority party. CNN was reporting at 11 p.m. Nov. 2 that Republicans took control of the House on Election Day by winning as many as 50 of the seats up for grabs.

The Shuler-Miller race, however, was not even that close. Shuler won by a 54 to 46 percent margin.

“I’m not too surprised about the Shuler/Miller race,” said Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper. “He was ahead in every poll I saw. He had the former president stumping for him. He is a conservative Democrat in a district dominated by conservative Democrats. Add to that he had excellent name recognition and has all the benefits of incumbency, and even in a Republican year, he was unlikely to lose.”

Shuler is a Bryson City native and former University of Tennessee and NFL quarterback who unseated the powerful Charles Taylor in the 2006 election. In Washington he has aligned himself with Blue Dog coalition, a caucus of moderate-to-conservative House Democrats.

Shuler’s opponent was Jeff Miller, a small businessman who started the Honor Air movement which flies World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorial to that war. He earned a lot of respect during the campaign for staying focused on delivering his message rather than attacking Shuler.

Shuler carries torch in money race

Congressman Heath Shuler has a sizeable financial advantage against his opponent heading into the fall election season.

Shuler, D-Waynesville, had $1.4 million in cash on hand compared to just $65,000 for Jeff Miller, R-Hendersonville, according to campaign finance reports filed by the two candidates in July.

Miller’s campaign contributions for the first six months of 2010 aren’t drastically below that of Shuler’s, however. Miller raised $246,000 in the first six months of the year, compared to $304,000 for Shuler.

The giant spread in their campaign treasuries is due instead to the substantial carryover in Shuler’s war chest from the past two elections. Shuler had $970,000 left, providing a generous foundation for the 2010 race. Plus, Shuler raked in more than half a million in donations in 2009 before Miller had even thrown his hat in the ring.

Miller, meanwhile, didn’t start fundraising until this year.

Miller knows the money race will be a tough road to hoe.

“We don’t have a lot of money like Shuler,” Miller said. “He pretty much has an endless well of money. He could start going on TV right now and max out and not be able to spend all his money.”

Shuler sailed into office two years ago, pulling down 62 percent of the vote compared to 36 percent for his opponent Carl Mumpower. Mumpower, a former Asheville city council member, wasn’t exactly the strongest candidate.

A controversial city councilman, Mumpower was a media lightning rod and seemed to revel in it. His eccentricities magnified during the congressional race, witnessed by a life-sized cardboard cutout of Shuler he carried to debates since Shuler wouldn’t attend.

As a result, Shuler spent only $637,000 to defeat Mumpower even though he raised $1.63 million in the 2008 election cycle.

Shuler admits he didn’t have to work very hard that race.

“Last time it was kind of a pass, and this time it won’t be a pass,” Shuler said, indicating he is ready to spend more this go around.

Miller’s ability to raise close to what Shuler raised during the first half of 2010 is impressive considering the source of contributions. Miller’s donations all came from individuals, while 60 percent of Shuler’s donations this election cycle have come from political action committees.

The incumbent advantage is obvious in the fundraising arena. Shuler picks up contributions from a laundry list of political action committees that make a habit of donating a few thousand a year to just about every sitting member of Congress, from the Airline Pilots Association and National Beer Wholesalers to corporate PACs of companies like Microsoft, Lowe’s and Duke Energy.

The trend will likely continue through the fall.

“People who donate money are strategic about it, and they are more likely to donate money to those who are more likely to win,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

Miller, meanwhile, is relegated to raising smaller sums one individual at a time. The bad economy has made fundraising from individuals harder, he said.

“The part of this job I hate the most is calling people and asking them for money because I know how hard it is right now,” Miller said. “I truly dislike it, but I do it because I have to.”

Miller put in $12,000 of his own money into his candidacy so far. It’s not classified as a loan, so he doesn’t intend to pay himself back. But Miller said if he is asking others to donate their hard-earned money, he should put up some of his own.

To Miller’s detriment, he is spending money almost as soon as it comes in, according to the campaign finance reports. He spent nearly everything he raised as it came in. As a result, he has little reserves to speak of going into the critical three-month countdown to Election Day.

Miller may be behind in the money race, but he is doing what he can on a different front. He has been highly visible in the region, attending events and speaking to groups at a whirlwind pace. Miller chastised Shuler for not spending enough time interfacing with voters.

“He does not do public events. He did not do town halls that I know of,” Miller said. Not even on the health care bill, Miller said. Shuler did do call-in town halls, however, where the public received pass codes to participate.

Shuler said he is in Washington a lot, so he likely won’t be as visible as Miller on the campaign trail since he has a job to do.

“It is much harder and more difficult to be out and about,” Shuler said.

 

Campaign fundraising snapshot

Jeff Miller, R-Hendersonville

Cash on hand: $65,000

Cash entering the election cycle: 0

Percent raised from PACs: 0

Average donation amount: $856

Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville

Cash on hand: $1.428 million

Cash entering the election cycle: $970,000

Percent raised from PACs: 60

Average donation amount: $1,368

* Figures based on federal campaign finance reports filed by the candidates at the close of the second quarter of 2010.

Poll shows Shuler curries support from right as well as left

While national pundits predict Republican challengers will steal seats from Democrats in Washington come November, Congressman Heath Shuler likely has little to worry about, based on a recent poll of registered voters in Jackson County.

Shuler, D-Waynesville, has a general approval rating of 46 percent, with 39 percent unfavorable and the remaining 15 percent undecided, according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll conducted by Public Policy Polling out of Raleigh in June.

The results sound merely mediocre for Shuler on the surface. But the poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters reveals a striking anomaly in who Shuler’s supporters are: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

“That is rare,” said Chris Cooper, a WCU political scientist who developed the poll. “That is very, very rare that Republicans would feel as good about a Democrat as a Democrat does.”

Shuler seems to be in the perfect position given the district’s demographics, Cooper said. Shuler not only locks down the votes of conservative Democrats who would otherwise be quick to desert a more liberal candidate, he also snags part of the Republican vote.

And as for the liberal Democrats, he captures them too since they have nowhere else to turn.

“The Democrats don’t have a more liberal option, so they are probably still going to vote for him,” Cooper said.

Shuler’s approval rating was actually pulled down by those who identified themselves as liberal. The poll asked voters not only what party they were registered as, but also whether they considered themselves liberal, moderate or conservative. Only 30 percent of self-described liberals approved of Shuler. Conservative — even conservative Republicans — were more likely to approve of Shuler than liberals.

Shuler agrees he has strayed from the party on a few key votes. He voted against the stimulus bill and against the Wall Street and auto bailouts. But his vote against health care reform was likely the most upsetting to more liberal Democrats, Shuler said.

“You realize you can’t make everyone happy on every single vote you cast,” Shuler said. “I hope the votes I cast represent a large percentage of our district.”

Shuler may indeed mirror his constituents.

“It is a particular breed of Democrats we have in Western North Carolina,” Cooper said. “So many of our Democrats are conservative. I think the Democrats in Western North Carolina looks a lot like the Southern Democrat of 30 and 40 years ago.”

Shuler agreed.

“Republicans from California could be more liberal than North Carolina Democrats,” Shuler said.

Shuler is the fifth most conservative Democrat in Congress and is the whip for the Blue Dog Democrats, a self-proclaimed group of 54 conservative Democrats who joined forces to form a moderate voting block in the House. The Blue Dogs are more than willing to break ranks with their party when push comes to shove.

 

Not exactly a sleeper race

 

Shuler’s opponent, Jeff Miller from Hendersonville, isn’t discouraged by the poll numbers, however. Shuler’s favorable rating was below 50 percent, which political experts say is a dangerous tipping point for incumbents — one that suggests the race is very much in play.

“I know as an incumbent I would not be comfortable with that. I would be worried and trying to do something about it,” Miller said.

Miller said voters this year in particular will be more likely to oust their sitting congressman and go for the challenger.

“This is pretty reflective of what you see around the country. I think there is a ‘get out of our house’ movement that wants to replace everyone,” Miller said. “People are very frustrated with the federal government.”

Indeed, the PPI/SMN poll of Jackson voters showed only 29 percent had a favorable opinion of the federal government. But given Shuler’s approval rating of 46 percent, they seem to distinguish between the two.

Miller’s campaign conducted a poll of its own the first week of June. The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Va., on behalf of Miller’s campaign, targeted only 300 voters in the 15-county district with a 5.6 percent margin of error. WCU’s poll surveyed more nearly 600 voters and had a 4 percent margin of error.

In Miller’s poll, Shuler had an approval rating of 53 percent — compared to 46 percent in the poll of only Jackson County voters.

Jackson County has a greater percentage of Democrats than the district as a whole, which should theoretically translate into a higher approval rating for Shuler in Jackson — not a lower one. Instead, the results offer further proof liberal Democrats actually pull his approval rating down.

While Shuler is busy pointing out his conservative votes, Miller is busy pointing out his opponent’s liberal ones. Miller rattled off several Democratic bills that Shuler supported: financial reform, pro-union legislation and cap and trade. And most importantly, says Miller, Shuler voted to give control of the House to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“Mrs. Pelosi’s values I don’t think are our mountain values,” Miller said.

The poll conducted by Miller asked people who they plan to vote for: 46 percent said Shuler, 34 percent said Miller and 18 percent were undecided. Miller said that’s not bad, considering it was right after the primary and he doesn’t yet enjoy the name recognition that he will have by November. In fact, only 38 percent of those polled had heard of him.

Jumping ship harder than it seems

Dissatisfaction with Shuler among some Democrats led to a relatively poor showing for Shuler in the May primary — he pulled only 60 percent of the vote — especially considering he ran against a no-name opponent. Aixa Wilson did no campaigning to speak of and was largely unknown, with a name that left many voters wondering whether he was a man or a woman. Nonetheless, Wilson made an impressive showing and even carried Buncombe County over Shuler.

“It is easy to cast a protest vote when you know your candidate is going to win,” Cooper said.

It’s another matter when the seat is really on the line, Cooper said.

However, Miller said Democrats have told him personally they will vote for him instead of Shuler.

“I do believe some are going to jump ship,” Miller said.

But Shuler disagreed.

“They won’t jump ship,” Shuler said. “Even though they may not agree with my health care vote, they at least recognize I am the same person I said I was when I first ran for office.”

Shuler may not vote the way Democrats like all the time, but he at least votes their way more often than Miller would.

But Miller said he has heard firsthand from liberal Democrats who plan to vote against Shuler “out of anger for Shuler because he did not vote the way [they] wanted,” Miller said.

Miller said these voters are willing to sacrifice the seat to a Republican for now with the aim of running a more progressive candidate two years from now and claiming it back. Miller joked that he is never quite sure “whether to say thanks or not” when hearing from these voters.

Cooper is skeptical that many Democrats would be willing to sacrifice the seat for two years in hopes of winning it back in 2012 under the banner of a more liberal Democrat.

“I don’t think people vote that strategically. I think people talk that strategically, but I don’t know if they vote that strategically,” Cooper said.

There is one problem with a disenchanted base, however. Candidates rely on party loyalists to propel their campaigns, and Shuler may suffer in that area.

“Real party loyalists are less likely to be excited about Shuler, put a yard sign up for Shuler, tell their friend about Shuler,” Cooper said.

Shuler explains his more conservative leanings as simply rising above party politics.

“Far too often we are seeing the extreme on both sides get most of the talking points, but I feel like I am the person in the middle trying to be a conduit saying, ‘Here is the middle ground folks,’” Shuler said. “It is more about the individual that you are actually voting for and less about the party.”

Cooper said a scandal is likely the only thing that could compromise Shuler’s favorable rating in the short time span between now and the election.

“Save some kind of John Edwards situation, he is looking pretty good,” Cooper said.

Conservative Democrats, endangered species and Rep. Heath Shuler

By Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts

A creature once roamed the American South that many now presume to be endangered if not extinct — the conservative Democrat. For nearly a century following the Civil War, almost all white southerners were conservative Democrats. As late as 1978, more than a third of all Democrats in the South were conservatives. In most parts of the South today, however, finding a conservative Democrat is about as likely as spotting a bald eagle — they do exist but they are hard to find.

A recent survey conducted by the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News, however, suggests that Jackson County resembles a refuge for conservative Democrats. Today almost as many Democrats in Jackson County identify as conservatives as liberals (23 percent compared to 30 percent — the remainder are moderates). These numbers are even more striking when compared to an analysis of Republicans in the county.  Two-thirds of Republicans in the WCU PPI/SMN poll claim to be conservatives, compared to less than 4 percent who are self-proclaimed liberals. The message is clear: Democrats do not mind being called conservatives, but almost no Republicans in our county want to be called liberal.

So what does this mean for political candidates in Jackson County? First — it pays to be a Democrat. Results of the survey as well as analysis of voter registration records in Jackson County clearly indicate that there are many more Democrats than Republicans residing in the county. In the WCU PPI/SMN survey, 45 percent of the respondents claim to be Democrats, compared to 32 percent who identify as independents and 24 percent who consider themselves Republicans. The actual voter registration numbers are identical for Democrats, but indicate slightly higher percentage of registered Republicans.

Despite these positive numbers for Democrats, aspiring politicians in this county who align themselves with the Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid wing of the Democratic Party will find little support. Nationally, Republicans tend to be conservative, and Democrats are most often liberal. As we suggested above, however, few Democrats in this county consider themselves liberals. Most are moderates, and almost a quarter are conservatives. Among members of all parties, only 18 percent are liberals, compared to 42 percent who are moderates and 40 percent who are conservatives.

Given these trends, it is perhaps not surprising that more than half of the respondents in the WCU PPI/SMN survey who expressed an opinion on Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler hold a favorable view of him (54 percent favorable, compared to 46 percent unfavorable). Shuler has distanced himself from the Pelosi/Reid wing of the Democratic Party by casting votes against the healthcare plan and the stimulus package.

In fact, an independent analysis of roll-call votes in the House by political scientist Keith Poole finds that Shuler is the fifth most conservative Democrat in the House. Perhaps as a result, further analyses of Jackson County survey data reveal that Democrats are no more likely to approve of Shuler than Republicans, and conservatives are more likely to support him than liberals.    This trend is most evident at the extremes where twice as many conservative Republicans as liberal Democrats approve of Shuler (60 percent to 30 percent).

All of this portends well for Shuler this fall, at least in this county. Sure he is not popular with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but fortunately for Shuler, this is a fairly small part of the Jackson County electorate. Moderate and conservative voters of both parties as well as independents approve of Shuler in fairly high numbers. A lot can happen between now and November, but Heath Shuler can probably rest fairly comfortably in the conservative Democratic refuge of Jackson County.

Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts are both Associate Professors of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University where Knotts also serves as Department Head and Cooper directs the Public Policy Institute.

Republicans suit up for race against Shuler

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.

U.S. Congress

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

GOP hopes voter anger will help beat 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 Heath Shuler.

Whoever wins the Republican primary for the 11th Congressional District, however, will have their work cut out for them.

“This is not going to be a cake walk for anybody,” said Jake Howard, a candidate from Franklin.

While Democrats are vulnerable on the national stage, Shuler isn’t exactly a raging liberal, much to the chagrin of die-hard Democrats in the district. He’s good looking, a family man, and a devout Christian. People line up for his autograph when he makes public appearances — due more to his football fame than status as congressman

Money will be a major factor in the race against Shuler. Shuler has lots of it, and none of the Republican candidates in the running have a hope of matching it. The big question is how much money the national Republican Party will funnel to Shuler’s opponent.

“I think no matter who our primary voters elect we are going to see the national Republican Party here,” said Robert Danos, the chairman of the Henderson County Republican Party and a Shuler critic.

But Republicans have their eye on taking back many seats in 2010, so competition for national financial backing will be stiff.

“I think the Republican Party will focus first on open seats,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

Shuler’s seat would likely be a close second in line, however.

“Shuler is a vulnerable Democrat in a district that has shown it will vote for Republicans, so after putting money into open seats, this will be one of the races they look to — especially if the nominee is a candidate the national party thinks will do well,” Cooper said.

The Republican challengers are downplaying the importance of funding in this year’s election.

“It will be incumbent on whoever wins to raise a lot of money, but money alone is not going to do it this year,” said Greg Newman, a candidate from Hendersonville. “The message this year is going to be more important than ever before.”

Fellow candidate Jeff Miller agrees to a point.

“It doesn’t mean you can go in there with $100,0000 and beat Heath Shuler. He is going to dominate airwaves and he is going to dominate mailings,” Miller said.

Only two candidates have paid campaign staffs at this point. Miller and Dan Eichenbaum, who each have three paid staff.

Shuler is not only a multi-millionaire, but has also already amassed a formidable war chest. He had $1.27 million in the hopper as of January before his main fundraising push has even started.

In 2008, Shuler raised $1.67 million but spent less than $800,000 against a comparatively weak opponent in Carl Mumpower.

Coattails effect

Republicans are holding out hope that a national tide will carry them to victory against Shuler.

“I think he is going to be very vulnerable precisely because this election, just like congressional elections across the country, is going to be much more about the national issues than just ‘Do you like the guy,’” said Danos.

But whether the country is headed for a Republican landslide this year that will hurt Shuler is unpredictable for now.

“I think this is definitely going to be a better year for Republicans than it is for Democrats,” Cooper said. “That said, I think where we are really going to see that is with the open seats. Shuler is an incumbent, and for incumbents to lose they pretty much have to shoot themselves in the foot during the election.”

Not just any candidate can ride a Republican tide to defeat Shuler, Miller said.

“I think you are going to have to have the right person,” Miller said.

All candidates agreed on that point, although opinions obviously vary on who that “right” candidate is.

“This race is all about who can beat Shuler,” said Jake Howard, a candidate from Franklin. “If the Republican voters send a neophyte up against Heath Shuler he will eat their lunch.”

The most electable candidate in a general election doesn’t always emerge as the top vote-getter in a primary.

“Only a fraction of the voters are going to get to the polls,” Howard said. “So it is so easy to select the wrong candidate.”

Both years Shuler won — in 2006 and 2008 — were generally good years for Democrats.

“Many people, including a number of Republicans, were angry about things the Bush Administration did a poor job of managing,” Danos said. “But now they see turning the keys over to Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama is much further to the left than many people who voted for Obama expected.”

Painting Shuler into the same corner as Pelosi and Obama is clearly part of the Republican strategy, but it might not be that easy. Shuler voted against the Wall Street bailout, against the auto bailout, against the stimulus bill and against the health care bill.

But Danos said as long as Shuler votes for Pelosi each year to serve as Speaker of the House, he is handing the agenda over to liberal Democrats.

“Shuler talks a good game at home of being a conservative,” Danos said. But in reality, he isn’t as conservative as he makes out to be, Danos said.

Nonetheless, many Democrats are angry with Shuler for being part of the Blue Dog caucus — a band of conservative Democrats who often vote as their own block.

But Cooper doubts that liberal Democrats will be angry enough to vote against Shuler.

“He will still be a better Democrat than a Republican will be,” Cooper said.

It would be too risky for Democrats to oust Shuler and sacrifice the seat to a Republican in the short term in hopes of getting a “real” Democrat to take the seat back two years from now, Cooper said.

“I think people aren’t willing to roll the dice that much,” Cooper said. “I think at the end of the day people vote for the candidate that holds the package of beliefs that are closest to them.”

Most electable?

Six months is a long time in American politics, and no one can predict if the Republican fury will fade or sustain itself. But Dan Eichenbaum, a primary candidate from Murphy, said the movement isn’t going away.

“The direction our country is going is so abhorrent to so many people,” Eichenbaum said.

Eichenbaum is a self-described Tea Party activist.

“I have been rolling up shirtsleeves and getting out my check book since last spring,” Eichenbaum said.

Candidates that cater to purist Republican ideals like Eichenbaum may resonate well in a primary. But the right-leaning base that dominates the polls in the primary may select a candidate that is less electable come the general election.

“In the primary you have to talk to the right, then in the general election move to the center,” said Ed Krause, a candidate from Marion.

But Eichenbaum said he refuses to compromise on his principles to win votes based on his audience.

“That’s what got us in this mess in the first place,” said Eichenbaum, who was at one time a registered Libertarian.

Eichenbaum is one of the leading contenders in the primary. But so is Jeff Miller, who is far more moderate.

Miller doesn’t engage in the level of Democrat bashing that has endeared Eichenbaum to his base.

“We all have a piece of this together,” Miller said of the national crisis.

Miller said his platform will make him a more viable opponent against Shuler come November.

“You have to decide what is going to play the best. The unaffiliated voter is huge in this district,” Miller said.

Especially if winning the general election could require wooing Democrats to break ranks.

“You can’t ignore this Tea Party movement. But I think in the end the established Republican is going to get the nomination and will get the most support from the national party and the voters of the 11th district,” Cooper said.

Unknown faces

Until now, the candidates are largely unknown except within their own counties. No one had true regional name recognition going into the race.

In a territory that spans 15 counties, candidates find themselves criss-crossing Western North Carolina several times a week in the final throws of primary season.

“It is very challenging,” Krause said. “My dogs don’t know who I am.”

Kenny West, who lives in Hayesville, has a long haul to get just about anywhere. He has been averaging 1,700 miles a week campaigning lately.

Newman said candidate forums and debates have been well attended.

“As opposed to a lot of primary election cycles people are very engaged about this particular election,” Newman said. “I believe it is symptomatic of how people feel about the country right now.”

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