POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 20, 2012
CONCORD N.C. » Rep. Larry Kissell slid into a diner booth here and sought to explain — with no small amount of irritation, since he has apparently been asked many times — his decision to run in his newly configured House district in contrast to two fellow North Carolina Democrats who retired rather than risk defeat in districts reshaped by Republicans.
"Those are decisions they had to make on a personal level," said Kissell, whose district outside Charlotte has gone from being mildly Republican in his first election in 2008 to 12 percentage points in favor of the opposition party now. "I really view this as being a job of serving the public. It's not a campaign for me; it's just doing our job. And if we do a good job, the results will go our way."
Republicans have a different view. They see North Carolina as the state that stands between Democrats and their dreams of retaking the House.
Congressional redistricting, a decennial process that generally allows the party in power in each state to draw new lines, has not created many opportunities for new seats for Republicans, as the party's leaders once expected. But it has forced multiple House Democrats, viewing their odds in new districts as slim, into retirement. Many of those districts are now either in play or solidly Republican, making the climb for Democrats all that more onerous.
On paper, Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to take back House control. In reality, the number is closer to 30 or even 35 since the party is likely not only to lose the seats of retiring Democrats in North Carolina, but also to face tougher odds in Arkansas, California, Oklahoma, Indiana, Illinois and perhaps in Arizona, in the district once served by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Overall, 15 Democrats have announced their retirements from the House, compared with 10 Republicans. Seven Democrats and eight Republicans have also opted to run for other offices. Among the lot, Republicans leave far more safe seats behind than their Democratic counterparts.
Of the seats where members are not seeking re-election, just two — one in Illinois and the other in California — have the potential to flip from Republican to Democrat, said David Wasserman, House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, while at least six seats held by Democrats are at risk of falling to Republicans, thanks to new lines. Among those are the North Carolina seats being vacated by Reps. Heath Shuler and Brad Miller.
"Democrats are at a disadvantage because of these retirements," Wasserman said. "Those retirements have hamstrung their requirements of picking up the 25 seats they need."
Between the retirements and new office seekers, members who have already been picked off in primary battles and the addition of new congressional seats in some states via redistricting, 56 House seats are now left without incumbents, the highest number since 1992, Wasserman said. This has led both parties to study maps obsessively, looking for new places to eke out victory. Both will find them, but Democrats will find fewer on balance.
"Democrats are feeling the Tar Heel blues in North Carolina and across the country, with Democrats choosing to retire rather than be saddled with the albatross of a failed Obama economic agenda," said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "These retirements serve as a cautionary sign of the troubles House Democrats face with Barack Obama on the ballot in November."
The retirements of Shuler and Miller, both veteran lawmakers who won in tricky political terrain, have been a blow to Democrats here in North Carolina, and Kissell and Rep. Mike McIntyre have been pressed into districts with steep Republican advantages.
All the Democrats running for re-election here know they are laboring in a state that Republicans feel is their Illinois — the one state where Democrats had a firm hand on redistricting and used it to cause Republicans potential harm — and often hear discomforting words like "bloodbath" describing their prospects here.
But the party is not going down without a fight. McIntyre and Kissell are both well known in their districts, even the newer parts, in a state where voters are sometimes known to vote Republican for president and Democratic for the House. Obama's re-election efforts will be in full force here — the Democratic National Convention will be in Charlotte — and all Democrats will benefit from his team's get-out-the-vote efforts among base voters in a state he carried in 2008.
"I am a firm believer and still have confidence in North Carolina voters," said Hayden Rogers, the longtime chief of staff to Shuler who, after failing to persuade his boss to run again, decided to go for a seat himself. "I think they are looking for candidates who are rational, and they are less inclined to vote by political affiliation."
Finally, Democrats here are used to running uphill.
"I am not going to sugarcoat it," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It is always hard to lose a valued colleague, but we're not going to concede North Carolina. Our incumbents survived the toughest climate in recent political history — 2010. They know how to win independents, they know how to win Republicans, they are battle tested, they are field ready, they did it before and they'll do it again."
Richard Hudson, a former congressional staff member, smells opportunity. He is running among a handful of others in the Republican primary in the Eighth District, where Republicans hope to pick off Kissell. "Part of the challenge is name identification," Hudson conceded. "My name ID is 10 percent. Larry Kissell's is 70 percent."
But, Hudson said, under redistricting, Kissell "does not match the district." For instance, Hudson said, while Kissell voted against the health care law, he did not vote for repeal.
As he walks around the district, Hudson applies the rules he has learned on the trail. Do not step on lawns; use the walkway. Never sneak up on someone mowing the grass. Do not be too pushy.
"I'm aware of your face!" said one resident of Concord as he slipped into her yard. Hudson seemed pleased.