The prospect of North Carolina flipping its House delegation from a Democratic majority to a Republican super-majority has triggered a flood of new Republican candidates sensing an opportunity to ride the next conservative wave into Washington.
Redistricting, led by a GOP-controlled state legislature, has given Republicans a chance to pick up more new seats in North Carolina than anywhere else in the country. They are counting on winning two, and possibly four, extra seats. The Democrats 7-6 majority in the state congressional delegation could conceivably turn into a 3-10 minority should the votes fall in the Republican’s favor.
Seventy-five candidates, including 48 Republicans and 24 Democrats, have filed for North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats. If five new members of Congress are elected, it would represent the biggest turnover since Republicans took over Congress in 1994.
In seats that Republicans now control, a big question is whether the Republican who goes to Congress will be an incumbent or a tea party-backed insurgent.
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Making matters worse for N.C. Democrats is a state party scandal involving sexual harassment allegations that forced the executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party to resign. Republicans are doing everything they can to stoke the controversy.
On Tuesday, several top N.C. Democrats – including U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, who is fighting to hold onto his 8th District congressional seat – have called for state party chairman David Parker to resign following questions about a secret agreement to pay a former Democratic Party staffer to keep quiet about sexual harassment allegations.
“For folks like Larry Kissell, he is in a big enough battle, he doesn’t want any more external baggage hung around his neck,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “They don’t need the constant media attention of a Democratic alleged scandal as voters are going to the ballot box.”
Five Republicans (and one Democrat) are seeking to unseat Kissell in District 8. The Democrat has been named as one of the Republicans’ prime targets, along with U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre of District 7.
The party has sought to lump both congressmen with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama’s most unpopular policies.
Neurosurgeon John Whitley is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in the District 8 primary. He dons his medical coat at campaign events to hammer his message that Congress must overturn “Obamacare.”
Richard Hudson, a former Congressional aide who spent years as district director for former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes, trotted out his pet bulldog, Hoover, in a campaign ad to serve as a metaphor for the need for stronger leadership.
Christopher Schuler, Kissell’s spokesman, said the congressman was underestimated when he upset an incumbent Republican in 2008 and endured the GOP wave in 2010. He said Kissell “doesn’t need any props” like his challengers, and said he often bucks his party. Schyuler charged Republicans with trying to distort Kissell’s record.
“He’s the only one in this race who has voted against the health care bill three times,” Schuler said. Hudson notes that Kissell did not vote to repeal the measure.
DEMOCRATS NOT BACKING DOWN
After big losses in the 2010 midterm elections, House Democrats seek to capitalize on the anti-Washington fervor in hopes of winning the 25 seats they need to regain control of the House.
They’re expected to make gains in California and Illinois. But political analysts say that Democratic retirements in places like North Carolina and recruiting problems in California and West Virginia will limit the Democrats’ opportunities.
U.S. Rep. Brad Miller of Raleigh decided to retire rather than run against U.S. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill after the new maps put the two Democrats in the same district. So did another Democrat, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler of Waynesville, whose mountain district became more Republican when much of Asheville was cut out.
“You have two Democrats choosing to retire rather than being saddled with the albatross of a failed Obama economic agenda” said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “And then two more being drawn into a heavy Republican-favored district ... Make no mistake we’re going to target Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre because they’re part of the problem in Washington.”
Democrats admit redistricting has made their job more difficult. The party has not listed any North Carolina seats as part of their aggressive “Red to Blue” campaign, which gives top-ranked Democrats greater support in races in Republican-held districts. But Stephanie Formas of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Republicans are “fooling themselves by thinking that they can easily defeat Congressman Mike McIntyre and Congressman Larry Kissell.”
She said both are battle-tested leaders who are facing Republican candidates “that support an extreme agenda.”
GOP INFIGHTING IN SOME DISTRICTS
So many Republicans vying for a limited number of seats has spawned intra-party battles. The race for supremacy among the 11 Republicans vying to replace U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick of the Charlotte-area 9th District – a seat held by Republicans for six decades – has been dominated by a personal feud between Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Pendergraph and former state senator Robert Pittenger of Charlotte. And accusations that U.S. Rep. Walter Jones is not conservative enough has opened him up to a primary challenge from former New Bern Police Chief Frank Palombo, who has the support of tea partiers. Jones, a Farmville Republican, is also the latest target of the anti-incumbent super PAC, The Campaign for Primary Accountability, which plans to launch a six-figure opposition campaign against him for the primary.
In the District 7 primary race, intra-party fighting between state Sen. David Rouzer and Ilario Pantano, the GOP’s nominee in 2010, over who will face McIntyre in November has given the incumbent extra time to meet people in his new district.
Rouzer and Pantano have been trading barbs over who is the right conservative for the job. The tea party-backed Pantano has repeatedly accused Rouzer of lobbying on behalf of amnesty for illegal immigrants and “betraying the conservative cause for a paycheck.” Rouzer, who has the backing of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, responds that voters are more concerned about the economy. He also touts his legislative experience as an adviser to former Sen. Jesse Helms.
The winner will run against McIntyre in a district that is now five points more Republican than the old district.
McIntyre, who lost voters in Fayetteville and much of his native Robeson County, said his southeast North Carolina district was ripped up out of “political vengeance.” But he said he’s been holding events in the new district since January.
He had an event last week in Lenoir County and another this week at Johnston Community College in Smithfield. On April 30, he’ll be in Hoke County.
“Ultimately you never stop running for office,” he said.
CONGRESSIONAL RACES TO WATCH
Destined to change
U.S. Rep. Brad Miller decided to retire after redistricting placed him in the same district as U.S. Rep. David Price. That leaves his District 13 seat open for the taking. Despite a couple of Democratic candidates, the seat is more likely to end up in the hands of a Republican.
The high-profile Republican primary includes a battle between Wake County Commissioner Paul Coble, a former Raleigh mayor, and former U.S. Attorney George Holding.
Republicans see an opportunity to take over the District 7 seat held by U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Lumberton Democrat, after new maps made the district more Republican. State Sen. David Rouzer and Ilario Pantano, the 2010 GOP nominee, are in an intraparty dogfight hoping for the chance to give Republicans another seat in the House of Representatives.
The biggest threat to longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a Farmville Republican, isn’t a Democrat, but rather the tea party-backed former New Bern police chief Frank Palombo. Palombo is also likely to receive a great deal of indirect support from an anti-incumbent SuperPAC that plans to spend thousands of dollars in advertising against the incumbent.
Despite whether incumbents are re-elected or not, thousands of Triangle residents will inherit new representation next year. Durham, for example, will be divided into four Congressional districts – 1, 4, 6, and 13 – after years of being contained in the 4th Congressional District.
Provided he is re-elected as is expected, 4th District U.S. Rep. David Price could end up sharing Durham County with U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, a Greensboro Republican, provided they’re re-elected, as well as the winner of the highly contested District 13 race.
U.S. Rep. Howard Coble’s new district also encompasses parts of Alamance and Orange counties.