Tar Heel Blues Continue For Democrats

Jessica Taylor February 3, 2012 · 9:51 AM EST

It’s a rough time to be a North Carolina Democrat.

In the span of just a week, the party’s seen Gov. Bev Perdue choose retirement over a competitive reelection she was likely to lose, Rep. Brad Miller headed for the exits rather than face Rep. David Price in a Democratic primary, and moderate Rep. Heath Shuler has taken a knee instead of running for reelection in his now Republican-leaning district.

And shakeups in the Tar Heel State may not be done yet. As Democrats search for a replacement for Perdue, Rep. Mike McIntyre, another endangered Democrat, has publically floated a run. If McIntyre does follow through, that could leave Rep. Larry Kissell in the 8th District as the only remaining vulnerable Democrat in the quartet Republicans sought to target who chose to stick it out and fight. Former Rep. Bob Etheridge – the only North Carolina Democrat to lose in 2010, mostly of his own doing after a confrontation with a GOP tracker – has just entered the race for governor, and that could cause McIntyre and even Miller to reconsider their statewide plans.

Still, North Carolina was always going to be a tough state for national Democrats. While their most vulnerable congressional members did survive the brutal wave election of 2010, Republicans took control of the Legislature for the first time in over a century, giving them complete control of redistricting. As governor, Perdue had no veto power over their plans.

National Democrats had insisted for months that the last cycle had made their incumbents in the state battle tested. Even as Shuler was a constant source of retirement rumors and speculation, he was being considered for athletic director at the University of Tennessee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel insisted at a press conference in November he was “very confident” Shuler would run again.

Tar Heel Democrats may ultimately be better off without Perdue on the ballot. Long considered the most vulnerable sitting governor, she’d come under fire for her handling of disaster response in the wake of tornadoes and other scandals with her staff. Miller’s decision, too, helped Democrats avoid a divisive primary with Price, although they’re still in need of a candidate in his former 13th District.

Shuler’s decision is likely to sting the most for Democrats. The former Redskins quarterback had cultivated a centrist image, even waging a largely symbolic campaign against Nancy Pelosi for minority leader and was a leading voice for more moderation in the shrinking Democratic caucus.

The 40 year-old congressman had often voiced his frustration with Washington, and had recently told a local paper that being in Congress “gets old.” One North Carolina Democrat said getting him to run again in even 2008 and 2010 was a constant battle, and that his drive had evaporated. And, the frustrating thing to state Democrats was that they could still hold onto the seat, especially with Republicans in the redrawn 11th District facing a fractious primary of their own. “The seat is winnable for him. As bad as it looked on paper, it could have been done,” said a Democratic operative in the state.

Shuler’s announcement also comes less than a month before the Feb. 29 filing deadline, leaving his party scrambling to find a candidate who can fill the moderate void ahead of the May 8 primary. Early speculation appears to be centering on Shuler’s chief of staff, Hayden Rogers, as a possible replacement.

Still, all hope isn’t completely lost for Democrats in the Tar Heel state. Although they’re increasingly looking like an endangered species, Republicans have some glaring weaknesses in the state as well, and haven’t completely capitalized yet on the opportunities redistricting afforded them.

McIntrye may be the best positioned of any of the remaining Democrats to win reelection, and a weak Republican field may have him reconsidering his flirtation with a gubernatorial bid. His 2010 challenger Ilario Pantano has essentially never stopped running since his eight point loss to McIntyre. But Pantano had less than $9,000 in the bank at the end of 2011. Republicans regard state Rep. David Rouzer as the better general election candidate, but acknowledge that Pantano certainly does have a loyal following and him winning the primary is a very real scenario that would help McIntyre survive. Pantano has released several internal polls showing him leading Rouzer and has already released a scathing TV ad attacking Rouzer over immigration. Rouzer raised only $83,000 in the last quarter, while McIntyre brought in $194,000.

The 8th District primary to determine who will face Kissell is even more crowded but equally messy. There are as many as six serious candidates in the race, several who can self fund. Former congressional chief of staff Richard Hudson is typically seen as the frontrunner, but Republican insiders are concerned over the presence of former Winston Salem City Councilman Vernon Robinson, who’s made several previous runs for Congress and has become well known for his controversial ads touting himself as the “black Jesse Helms.” While Robinson has district-hopped, he does have a following, and if he were to win a fractured primary, Republicans are very worried he would endanger what should be an easy pick up for the GOP.

And while 11th District Republicans got a boost with Shuler’s exit on Thursday, the growing field has yet to coalesce around a single candidate, or even candidates. Local District Attorney Jeff Hunt was initially seen as a strong candidate, but his fundraising has proved lackluster, and now some GOP insiders see wealthy businessmen Mark Meadows and recent entrant Ethan Wingfield – who can both pump their own money into their campaigns – as the ones now to beat.

While a Republican sweep of the competitive seats in North Carolina in 2012 isn’t a foregone conclusion, the events of the past week and even more possible moves make a tough Democratic road even harder. And Democrats’ willingness to head for the exits rather than tough it out through tough races isn’t a good sign for their party. In Illinois, Democrats had total control of redistricting and made life similarly tough for the GOP in the Land of Lincoln – but every Republican still chose to tough it out. Blue Dog Democrats were already an endangered species after 2010, and recent days certainly won’t help their path back to relevance.