When Aixa Wilson finished with 39 percent of the vote in the 11th District primary against incumbent U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, many people were surprised with the results. Wilson was a virtually unknown candidate who had never held political office at any level. Even more troubling for the Shuler campaign was that Wilson beat Shuler by four points in the district’s largest county, Buncombe County, which contains the district’s largest city, Asheville.
Supporting Wilson was seen as a protest vote by liberals in the district as evidenced by an e-mail sent by Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell around the primary. In the e-mail, Bothwell included his choices for the ballot. Regarding the Shuler/Wilson match-up he wrote:
Wilson offers us a clear choice versus our incumbent Blue Dog, Heath Shuler. Wilson will not win. Shuler is too well known and has too much money. But a vote for Wilson gives me a chance to clearly voice my continuing disappointment with a Congressman who votes with Republicans over and over and over again. Send him a message!
Perhaps this should have been an inkling that Shuler might bleed liberal support in November, but in the eyes of the pundits, he was still safe. In their July 22 chart, The Cook Political Report listed the race as Likely Democratic, while The Hill listed the race as Lean Democratic. Shuler won reelection easily in 2008 with 62 percent of the vote and had $1.4 million on hand at the end of the second quarter (ending June 30). His Republican opponent this year, Jeff Miller, had $65,000 in the bank after a closely contested primary win.
A poll released on August 2 by SurveyUSA, changed the framing of the race, as it showed Shuler ahead of Miller by a 45-44 percent margin. Some questions about the intent of the organization that commissioned the poll aside, pundits were now taking this race seriously. Chris Hayes, analyst for the Civitas Institute which commissioned the poll, echoed what those who had seen Bothwell’s e-mail already knew. “Shuler has a base problem. He only won 60% in the primary,” Hayes said.
Asked about his take on the race after the poll was released, Cecil Bothwell told the North Carolina Independent News in an e-mail:
Heath Shuler is likely to lose due to his loss of support from the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. The fact that he lost the primary in his district’s largest county to an unknown candidate with no budget and no advertising or name recognition suggests that he is in real trouble. NC’s 11th Congressional District is historically volatile, with Democrat James McClure Clarke and Republican Charles Taylor trading the seat back and forth, and with Buncombe County going solidly for Obama while the rest of the District tilted toward McCain.
Shuler was originally tapped to run for the seat by Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee precisely because he was centrist to the point that he supported conservative Republicans when he lived in Tennessee. He was deemed conservative enough to beat Charles Taylor and that strategy worked. But what the DNC didn’t reckon with is the aftermath of the (Howard) Dean phenomenon which begat the Obama campaign and the leftward turn in Democratic politics. The new grassroots activists, Democracy for America, MoveOn, Progressive Democrats of America and Obama’s ongoing national campaign have activated many social liberals and peace advocates who are not much impressed by Shuler’s BlueDog credentials. I’ll be very surprised if they bother to vote for him this fall, and, frankly, very surprised if he wins.
(Photos: Wikimedia/Steve Mann; shuler.house.gov)Tags: Aixa Wilson, Asheville, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Blue Dog, Buncombe County, Cecil Bothwell, Charles Taylor, Civitas Institute, Democracy for America, Heath Shuler, Howard Dean, James McClure Clarke, jeff miller, MoveOn, North Carolina Congressional District 11, SurveyUSA