ASHEVILLE, N.C. – It’s the homestretch of the race, and the two candidates in North Carolina’s eleventh congressional district are going after each other on a number of hot-button issues. One of the challenger’s recent ads blasted the incumbent for voting “against more border agents to protect our nation” and “to give amnesty to illegal immigrants.” For his part, the incumbent’s latest ad campaign boasted about bringing “millions of dollars to Western North Carolina” and took the challenger to task for calling the federal government’s deficit spending “so irresponsible.”
The challenger says he is conservative, pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-tax cut. He is a former NFL quarterback, a real-estate developer, and a family man. He is Heath Shuler, Democrat — one of the most popular candidates among the national “netroots” of the party that hopes to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Such is the oddity of the 2006 election season, in which leftist activists who call President Bush “the world’s greatest terrorist” and his party liars, torturers, “theocons,” and “repugs” are placing their hopes in candidates like Shuler who, in some ways, resemble the very Republicans these people detest.
Can Heath Shuler actually beat longtime GOP incumbent Charles Taylor in this mountainous, Republican-leaning district? The answer is a resounding, confident “maybe.” Shuler has certainly overcome one traditional disadvantage for challengers: money. He’s raised millions, mostly from out-of-state Democrats desperate to take the U.S. House back after 12 years in the minority. And he reportedly bought a large amount of the available airtime during October. “I don’t think money is a big factor in this race,” said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. “Both sides have done a good job raising money and getting their name out.”
Political observers are abuzz this week about a new Reuters poll of 15 competitive congressional races across the country. It had Shuler up an eye-popping 11 points, and over the halfway mark at 51-40. Until now, there hasn’t been much publicly available polling in the 11th District, which covers the western corner of North Carolina and includes the city of Asheville and lots of little towns and hamlets. What polling has been reported, some of it from the Shuler campaign itself, has had the race much tighter.
The 11-point lead, generated by pollster John Zogby, is probably an outlier, say political analysts. Bill Sabo, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, has watched Charles Taylor’s races closely for years. “I’d give Shuler a slight lead, at best,” Sabo said. A North Carolina Republican source told me roughly the same thing: Shuler over 50 percent “does not seem plausible,” he said, but it is “quite possible that Shuler has a modest lead.” Taylor himself told me, without sharing the details, that his polling had the race “neck and neck.”
A little background on Western North Carolina is required to understand Shuler’s strategy and Taylor’s challenge. It boasts the tallest peaks of the Appalachians, spectacular views, and fecund river valleys. It contains lucrative tourist attractions, luxurious retirement communities, rundown industrial plants, quirky towns, and hovels. Mountain counties were long the stronghold of the Republican Party in North Carolina and other Southern states. The origin was, naturally, the Late Unpleasantness, when places like eastern Tennessee, western Virginia, and western North Carolina tended to oppose secession, dislike slave-holding elites, and resist the Confederate draft. In North Carolina, it was only in the 1950s and 1960s that Republicans began to enjoy significant success in pockets outside the mountains, leading to a breakout for statewide candidates in the 1970s. But all along, not all mountain counties were reliably Republican. In the 11th District, for example, just north of Asheville is Madison County, North Carolina’s answer to Cook County — a place where some Democrats were so committed to the cause that even death did not suppress their turnout on Election Day.
Generational change and migration patterns made Western North Carolina increasingly reliable for Republican candidates during the 1980s. Even so, the 11th District was one of the most competitive in the U.S., flipping back and forth between the parties every two years. Taylor ended that. A former minority leader in the state legislature, Taylor lost his first try for Congress in 1988 by a small margin, then won 51 percent of the vote in 1990. Since then, he has rebuffed every Democratic challenger — even some that, like Shuler, seemed to be a reasonable fit for the socially conservative, economically populist district. Part of what was going on here was increased immigration to Asheville and surrounding counties — not from south of the border but from north of the border, meaning the Mason-Dixon line. Often, however, these newcomers, who grew up Republican in places like Illinois and upstate New York, came to Western North Carolina after stops in Atlanta, Tampa, or other Southern metros. They were either retiring to the cooler climes of the mountains or escaping urbanization (in the far western corner of the state, there are actually some fringe bedroom communities of Atlanta — they have very little sense of being part of North Carolina). Whatever their prior itineraries, these voters helped to raise the base Republican vote.
While the district trended GOP during the 1990s, Democrats still found ways to win elections there. Former Gov. Jim Hunt won a number of mountain counties, as did his Democratic successor, Mike Easley, elected in 2000. Democrats represent quite a few legislative seats within the 11th District, as well, especially in the Asheville area, where the eclectic politics includes gun-toting mountain men, pony-tailed hippies, and even a few gun-toting, pony-tailed hippies. Successful Democratic candidates mixed a moderate-to-conservative image on social issues with calls for more government spending on education, roads, and economic development.
Indeed, Democrats have recently won hard-fought races for the state senate in mountain districts that, by the numbers, ought to be reliably Republican. In 2004, for example, a former judge with a tough-on-crime reputation, Democrat John Snow, upended longtime GOP incumbent Bob Carpenter in a Republican senate district that comprises the western end of Taylor’s congressional district. In 2002, Democratic businessman Joe Sam Queen won a moderately Republican senate district next door to Snow’s. Queen lost in 2004, but is running a well-funded, competitive campaign again this year, as is Snow. Heath Shuler’s strategists are aiming for the same kind of surprising outcome this year, and are employing similar tactics to accomplish it.
The environment looks favorable. While Taylor has continued to win elections, his winning percentages have shrunk a bit from their high point in the mid-1990s, to about 55 percent since 2000. One reason is that a series of scandals and accusations involving former Taylor business or political associates, or the many businesses that he owns and runs (his banking and tree-farming enterprises make Taylor one of the wealthiest members of the House), put him more on the defensive than he was in the past.
One surprise in this year’s race, at least so far, is that Shuler hasn’t really gone after Taylor on the past ethics allegations, though he has sought to tie the Republican to Washington corruption scandals such as the Abramoff affair. Nor has the Iraq War been much of an issue in the 11th District race, at least so far as campaign ads and public events are concerned. Shuler’s position on the Iraq War has been carefully worded to criticize “mistakes” in the war’s prosecution without questioning the underlying mission or calling for withdrawal, which would probably be unpopular messages among swing voters in this hawkish district. “It was probably a good decision to stay away from that,” Cooper said.
Instead, Shuler’s strategy has been to emphasize his conservative demeanor and moderate approach to social issues while attacking Taylor on trade and economic concerns. While Taylor publicly opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a brouhaha erupted when he failed to record his vote as the House passed CAFTA by a 217-215 margin. Republicans said that Taylor voted no but accidentally used a deactivated voting card. Democrats said he took a walk. In a district full of rural counties and small towns with abandoned textile mills and struggling furniture plants, the siren song of protectionism indisputably has an audience. The CAFTA-vote controversy added a whiff of apparent dissembling to that.
To win, Shuler can’t just turn out faithful Democrats in places like Asheville and woo true swing voters, Sabo said. He has to take Republican-leaning voters away from Taylor. Given disaffection with the national GOP and widespread economic unease, it’s possible. “[Shuler] has to look like a safe way for these voters to express dissatisfaction, a safe protest vote,” Sabo said. An emphasis on his family ties and his well-known, vigorous image as a football hero at the University of Tennessee will help Shuler in this regard. Cooper pointed out that the Reuters poll result, no doubt being widely broadcast within the district, will help reinforce this notion because “people don’t want to throw away their vote” on a doomed candidacy.
For his part, faced with a candidate hard to characterize as too extreme for the district on abortion, gun rights, gay marriage, or immigration, Taylor is repeating two major themes: the value of his seniority in bringing federal funds to the district, and the value to national Democrats of Shuler’s election. “A vote for Heath Shuler is a vote for Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco liberalism,” warns one Taylor piece. “In any legislative chamber, the first vote is the most important vote — for the leader,” said Bill Peaslee, executive director of the state Republican Party. “It sets the agenda for the next two years, and creates a filter that all bills have to pass through.”
Taylor told me that his opponent’s campaign was being “run from Washington” and that Shuler “doesn’t know if he is from Tennessee or North Carolina.” In a part of North Carolina with a traditional suspicion of outsiders, Cooper said, this kind of message has the potential to resonate with some voters.
With regard to Shuler’s moderate-to-conservative persona, Taylor didn’t exactly call it an act, but he did allege that Shuler’s handlers had written vague statements on his behalf to “fudge up” abortion and other social issues while keeping their candidate from answering pointed questions. The congressman admitted, however, that Shuler’s “A” grade from the National Rifle Association made it harder to run to the Democrat’s right on Second Amendment issues (though the NRA has endorsed Taylor in the race).
It had seemed to me that in the 11th District Taylor’s message about Nancy Pelosi — she will indeed be “coming ‘round the mountain when she comes” to power, you might say — would be more useful than Taylor’s bringing-home-the-bacon message. In the past, Taylor criticized pork-barrel spending and touted his fiscal conservatism. Now he promotes a list of federal projects he’s responsible for, including funds for local hospitals, university research, and tourism promotion. Many Republican-leaning voters are disaffected with the Bush administration and the national party precisely because of issues such as burgeoning federal spending and questionable budget earmarks. Shuler spokesman Andrew Whalen made just that point the other day. “While [Taylor’s] bragging about different projects, the nation is drastically in debt,” Whalen told the Charlotte Observer. “And that worries a lot of people, conservatives and otherwise.”
But perhaps the Shuler campaign and I are both out of step on this issue (surely a sentence I never expected to write). Everyone else I talked to thinks this is potentially a winning issue for Taylor. For one thing, the congressman draws a distinction between highlighting the projects he’s championed in the district and abandoning his commitment to fiscal responsibility. “I am among the most conservative appropriators in Congress,” he insisted. “Look, between me and Nancy Pelosi, there is a huge difference. We’ll only get down to nickel-splitting [in the federal budget] if we win the race and maintain control of the House.” Whereas in the past, Taylor emphasized his role in whittling down budget proposals, now he is emphasizing what he argues is securing needed federal spending on legitimate needs. “Hey, I’d vote with the libertarians on the income tax if that bill came down,” he added.
Other analysts agree that the message may succeed. Even if Republican voters worry in general about wasteful government and pork-barrel spending, their conservatism doesn’t extend to wanting their own district to go begging while others tap the federal money flow, Sabo argued. “I don’t think [Shuler’s] argument here is really going to succeed — that sounds like a bit of a stretch,” he said. Essentially, the question comes down to whether those Taylor voters Shuler is trying to convert are more populist than conservative. Populists tend to vote Republican on social and military issues and Democratic on issues like government spending. They think pork-barrel spending is a rip-off because powerful insiders steer it to places or projects that don’t need it. Conservatives think pork-barrel spending is wrong even if it flows to their own counties.
Does Taylor realize how serious the Shuler threat has become? I’d say so. “If the election were held today, I couldn’t win without doing a much better job than he does turning out the vote,” he said. Privately, Republicans tell me that the Taylor campaign hasn’t responded with much interest to offers of assistance from national GOP committees and the state party. Taylor makes no apologies for setting his own course. “After 16 years, we have a pretty good idea of the fundamentals, of what to do and how to get our vote out,” he said.
Taylor has a strategy — and given robust fundraising and his personal wealth, the resources to implement it. We’ll discover soon if it’s the right one.
– John Hood is a syndicated columnist and president of the John Locke Foundation, a public policy think tank in North Carolina.