‘No man can serve two masters,” Jesus said. The Lord was speaking about choosing between God and money, but this year moderate House Democrats face an analogous choice. With a midterm electoral bloodbath looming, swing-district lawmakers are having a thorny time trying to please the conservative sensibilities of their constituents without neglecting their duty to kiss Madam Pelosi’s pinky ring (not to mention genuflecting to President Obama). And much like Christ’s challenge to pick the temporal or the eternal, Democrats must make a similar choice, or risk the fires of political hell come November.
There are few better examples than North Carolina’s Larry Kissell. Swept into office in 2008 by Obama’s coattails, an unpopular Republican incumbent, and the sweat of liberal activists who volunteered for his campaign, Kissell now runs the risk of being a one-termer. He’s made enemies on both sides of the political spectrum, thanks to Obama’s ramrod first 15 months in office, which have forced moderate Democrats to navigate a minefield of legislative booby traps.
It’s a tension felt by dozens of Democrats elected to Congress in conservative and middle-of-the-road districts since 2006. On the economy, health care, and the environment, how do you square pleasing your party’s power brokers with appealing to the voters who put you in office, particularly on tender issues like the national debt and a public health-care option? Kissell is doing his best to walk that tightrope — but the rope is getting more threadbare by the week.
Were it not for the present crisis, Kissell would be a good fit for the blue-collar flavor of North Carolina’s 8th congressional district, which stretches along the South Carolina border east of Charlotte. He spent 27 years in the local textile industry and seven as a social-studies teacher. That background appeals to the district’s rural demographics, which tend to vote Republican in presidential races and Democratic in statewide contests. Bush won 54 percent there in 2000 and 2004, while Obama won 52 percent in 2008.
Kissell first entered the political maelstrom in 2006, when he tried to knock off five-term Republican incumbent Robin Hayes. He came up just shy. Two years later, when Obama was on the ticket, he routed Hayes by a 30,000-vote margin. But while a down economy helped Kissell in 2008, this year it’s become a liability. His district has languished, with unemployment several ticks higher than the national average. Worse, Kissell can no longer run as a Beltway outsider.
That’s opened a crowded field of Republican challengers who smell plenty of blood. Kissell already trails one of his GOP opponents, businessman Tim D’Annunzio, in the money race. Although early polling gives Kissell margins of about 15 points over the major Republican candidates, it might evaporate once the general election gears up. If that happens, Kissell will have no one but the president — who has tried to ram his agenda through as if his term lasted two years, not four — to blame.
Consider the votes that Kissell and other swing-district Democrats have faced: a health-care takeover, energy-industry-killing cap-and-trade, upping the national-debt ceiling, taxpayer-funded abortion, and cutting off federal dollars to ACORN. To call that lineup a minefield would be too generous, and Kissell has sweated his way through it. He voted no, both times, on health-care reform. He also voted against cap-and-trade, raising the national-debt limit, and continuing to bankroll ACORN. He voted yes on taxpayer-funded abortion by opposing the Stupak amendment.
Those were fairly safe votes for his district. It’s likely that Pelosi gave Kissell the go-ahead to oppose the health-care and global-warming legislation, knowing she had enough votes to pass both without forcing the former high-school teacher into a wildly unpopular position. But Kissell’s leftist base, in typical profane fashion, has called him on the carpet and accused him of flip-flopping, which presents another problem: He now is on the defensive before the general-election campaign even starts.
Sometimes vocally, sometimes behind the scenes, party leaders in the 8th district have toyed with the idea of a primary challenge for months. A year ago, liberals would have scoffed at the notion. Kissell was their man, a reliable lefty. He contributes to BlueNC, one of North Carolina’s most popular liberal blogs, not to mention the über-liberal Daily Kos. The American Civil Liberties Union gave him perfect marks on its congressional scorecard. He votes with party leaders 96 percent of the time.
But the handful of times that Kissell has broken ranks with Pelosi’s congressional shock troops, it’s been on agenda items sacrosanct to liberalism: health-care reform and the environment. “When you send representatives to Congress, we understand there are things they have to compromise on,” Michael Lawson, an 8th district Democratic-party official, told the Charlotte Observer in November. “There are also things you shouldn’t compromise on. And [health care] is one.”
Enter Nancy Shakir, an African-American woman who was a campaign volunteer for Kissell’s 2006 bid but is now challenging him in the May 4 primary. Her support could pick up over the next two weeks as more Democratic officials abandon him — including Kissell’s two-time campaign manager, a woman named Dannie Montgomery, who claims he betrayed “the grassroots supporters who propelled him to office.”
Just as in 2008, the 8th district race is registering outside North Carolina, too, though not in a way favorable to Kissell. Two years ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poured $2.4 million into the race. Kissell benefited from ample national exposure, and Obama’s vote-getting power in North Carolina didn’t hurt, either. But now he’s taking heat from national liberal groups, typified by a MoveOn.org ad last November claiming that Kissell “stood small” by voting against health-care reform.
By all accounts, Kissell and other moderate Democrats had a tough 2009, and their political fortunes should only worsen going into November. That’s due to one issue: the economy. “The budget situation that we’re facing is a deep hole for any politician,” said Democratic strategist Brad Crone, “and the first rule of hole digging is that if you find yourself in a hole, you stop digging.” That makes sense in a conservative district like Kissell’s, but Obama, Pelosi, and Reid won’t let that get in the way of remaking the United States economy.
So far, Kissell has stayed mum on the election. Sooner or later, though, he has to own up to reality. His district is the most likely in North Carolina to switch hands this year. If it does, Republicans will probably win big in other states as well and retake the House. What has to gall Kissell is that, if a more measured politician occupied the Oval Office, he wouldn’t have much to fear this cycle. But with Obama in office, he does.
– David N. Bass is an associate editor and investigative reporter for the John Locke Foundation, a think tank based in Raleigh, North Carolina.