In 2008, North Carolina was one of several once reliably red states that turned purple, as Barack Obama rode the nation's anti-Bush fervor to capture the traditionally GOP-leaning state the first for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter's victory there in 1976. And it was that same fervor that helped Larry Kissell win against five-term Republican incumbent Robin Hayes for his House seat. But one election cycle later, Kissell, 59, finds himself on the other side of anti-incumbent sentiment, facing a tough race against Republican Harold Johnson, 69, to remain in office.
In the predominantly red eighth district, which stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville, Kissell is struggling, like many Democrats this year, to defend the "D" next to his name. The freshman Rep. campaigned as a progressive in 2008, but these days, he's inching closer to the middle in an effort to win over conservative voters. "With the typical midterm election dynamics, and in a district that has a record of supporting Republicans for Congress and President, Kissell knew he had to be more concerned about convincing some Republicans and Independent voters that he wasn't in lockstep with Nancy Pelosi," said UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig. "If he loses, it has very little to do with anything he has done or hasn't done. I think it's entirely the national environment, and that's the nature of a swing district."
Last June, Kissell voted against the House's cap-and-trade bill, and earlier this year, he opposed Obama's health care reform legislation. "I believe that government works best when government sets the environment for people to be successful ... and then gets out of the way and lets people do best what they know how to do," he said at a 2009 event. "Sometimes some of my colleagues inside the Beltway in Washington don't know that that's the best way for government to be successful."
Still no matter how hard Kissell tries to distance himself, Johnson has the advantage of being even farther away from the Beltway. For 35 years, the Concord resident worked as a sportscaster for a news channel in Charlotte and was known as "the big guy" among locals. He won his GOP primary runoff with 61% of the vote against the well-funded, Tea Party-backed Tim D'Annunzio, whose legal problems and off-color remarks during the campaign marred any real chance for him to take the GOP nomination. For Johnson, this midterm is about not surprisingly jobs and the economy. "I have nine basic reasons to run now, and they're called grandchildren," he says. "For over a year, Kissell, Pelosi, and, for the most part, the President totally ignored the economy. The uncertainly and the lack of confidence in Washington right now is deafening to many, many business people, and that's what I hear."
Both candidates have been weak fundraisers thus far: Kissell closed the third quarter with $381,000 cash on hand, while Johnson finished with $352,000. But they each have the strong support of their parties' national organizations, a sign that both parties are determined to solidify the new swing state to either red or blue. In mid-September, the GOP's Young Guns a program founded by Congressmen Eric Cantor of Virginia, Kevin McCarthy of California and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to identify and recruit a new wave of Republican members added Johnson to their list of candidates to watch for in 2010. He has also received support from House Minority Leader John Boehner. "We think it's a very competitive race," Andy Seré, a spokesman for the NRCC, said in August. "We are prepared to do everything we can do to help Harold Johnson win." Meanwhile, CQ Politics reported recently that the DCCC has reserved close to $800,000 in airtime for the district.
A DCCC poll conducted Aug. 25-29 showed the Dem leading 48% to 36%. Meanwhile, a Johnson poll, conducted Aug. 29-30 by GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies, showed Kissell with a much smaller lead 39% to 34%, with 27% undecided or supporting Libertarian Thomas Hill.
With less than six weeks to go before Election Day, a once-safe race for Kissell has become North Carolina's most competitive House race. But the Representative's willingness to break from his party on two crucial votes and Johnson's lack of previous political experience may give Kissell the edge he needs to pull off another close win. Which would leave the Congressman in familiar territory, and North Carolina still in a purple haze.