Ignored in 2006, Kissell Has Plenty of IOUs to Collect

by Stuart Rothenberg September 20, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Larry Kissell is both an example of Democrats’ opportunities and a foreshadowing of their problems. But since their opportunities are much closer, most Democratic insiders certainly can live with problems that are years away.

Kissell, 56, is making his second bid to knock off incumbent Rep. Robin Hayes (R) in North Carolina’s 8th district. The Democrat worked in the textile industry for more than two decades before transitioning to become a high school social studies teacher.

Hayes barely hung on in November, winning by just 329 votes. Still, that was an accomplishment for the five-term Congressman given the number of veteran Republicans who went down to defeat. Hayes seems less than frightened at the prospect of a rematch, arguing that he didn’t run an aggressive race last time.

While it is true few thought back in January 2006 that the North Carolina 8th district race would be a photo finish or even that Hayes would be in serious trouble, the Congressman’s campaign spent $2.4 million during the election cycle, suggesting he didn’t merely coast to re-election. In October, Hayes ran a TV spot attacking Kissell on the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, a sign that the Republican’s campaign knew it was in a real contest.

Kissell spent only $800,000 last time, and neither now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) nor then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) sent him a check. The DCCC also ignored the race, believing that it had better opportunities elsewhere.

That’s already changed. Pelosi and Emanuel already have contributed, and DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) has made it clear that the committee sees Kissell as its candidate, even though the names of other potential candidates, including state Rep. Rick Glazier, still circulate. Kissell showed $101,000 in the bank on June 30.

The DCCC seems to get excited about the party’s prospects in Hayes’ district every two years (without great success), so it’s best to be skeptical about all the Democratic optimism and euphoria. Moreover, there’s no need to put a bet down on the winner at this point.

But Kissell seems to be the kind of Democrat who could carry this district if things break right for him.

He is a moderate Democrat who calls himself a “supporter of the Second Amendment,” says he would have voted for the supplemental appropriations bill that funded the Iraq War for three more months, and would have opposed the Cornyn/Kyl Senate bill’s approach on immigration because it established a procedure for citizenship for people in this country illegally.

No, Kissell is no closet Republican. He supports abortion rights and is opposed to further free-trade deals until he sees jobs returning to his district. But in style and on a number of issues, some on the Democratic left will likely have trouble with him.

One of the reasons Democrats now represent 233 seats in the House is that their Members sit in a number of conservative, Republican-leaning districts. To the extent that they add to those numbers, they create an inherent tension within their Caucus as well as within their party. It’s an entirely natural process, one that the Republicans faced when they held 232 seats.

This isn’t a problem for Democrats right now, and it’s one of those headaches that party campaign strategists don’t mind having, since it develops from success. But it’s also a fact: The bigger the majority in the House, the more likely internal divisions are to surface in the majority party.

You need not be a seer to figure out what will happen if Democrats gain six or eight House seats in addition to adding four or five Senate seats and winning the White House. All you need to do is look back at history.

It’s as simple as this: Republicans will go through a period of self-flagellation and self-examination, while Democrats will bask in the sunlight, eventually pushing a more liberal agenda that puts their less liberal Members — who represent Republican-leaning or conservative areas, such as North Carolina’s 8th — in an impossible position.

Depending on the specific circumstances, this will give way to growing Democratic in-fighting, including efforts by liberal Democratic groups to purge the party of “Democrats In Name Only” (DINOs, if the GOP experience is any indication of abbreviations and nicknames). Republicans will then look for candidates, regardless of their ideological bent, who can take advantage of Democrats’ weaknesses. And if Kissell is in Congress, he’ll be a GOP target.

It’s far from clear that Kissell will make it to Congress. He is counting on the presidential year turnout, voters’ perception that he can win and additional resources to help him overcome Hayes. But while he is earnest and likable, Kissell is low-key and has the charisma of a high school social studies teacher. And Hayes undoubtedly will be loaded for bear this time.

Hayes starts off with an edge in this race, but Kissell’s challenge definitely is worth watching. And if the Democrat wins, he’ll still be worth watching to see how he deals with party and local pressures to perform in office.