A tough fight in NC's 11th

Posted: May 11, 2006 12:05 AM

The Stadium

North Carolina’s 11th District covers some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country. Tucked amidst the convergence of the Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina borders, it incorporates numerous national and state parks, including the rolling hills and foggy vistas of the Blue Ridge and Great Smokey Mountains. 

The main metropolitan center is Asheville, while the rest of the district is largely rural, and populated by white, blue-collar workers. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians resides on a federal reservation in Cherokee, though they comprise a tiny portion of the voting electorate. Agriculture and forestry, long the area’s mainstay industries, are slowly giving way to new ventures. Retail trade, health care, and education are becoming major employers in the region. With such awe-inspiring scenery, tourism plays a key economic role, with visitors taking advantage of the ski slopes in the winter and the hiking trails and campgrounds throughout the rest of the year.

The district leans conservative—yet registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 20,000.

On Defense

The incumbent congressman, Republican Charles Taylor, first won the 11th District seat in 1990, and has subsequently won reelection 8 times, by an average margin of 57%. Facing a primary opponent for the first time since 1990, Taylor cruised to an easy victory last week and will be the Republican nominee.

As a result of his seniority, Taylor holds a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee; Taylor also serves as the chairman of the Interior Subcommittee. These posts enable Taylor to steer pork projects to his largely rural district. As Taylor notes on his web site, his subcommittee funds more than $26 billion dollars of federal government activities, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Carl Sandburg Home.
In a national political climate throwing around charges of "corruption," Taylor appears to be an inviting target. Yes, once again, the "culture of corruption" charge has been leveled against a Republican incumbent. He has previously involved himself in several apparent ethical gaffes. His failure to pay $50,000 in tardy back-taxes on some of his forest-land has caused problems in previous elections. He eventually paid the taxes in 2003. He also ran into trouble when a thrift store he owns was accused of obtaining fraudulent bank loans, though Taylor was cleared and not charged. Additionally, one of Taylor’s former House aides secured a lobbying contract for himself while on House payroll, which is against ethics laws.

Additionally, Democrats are calling for Taylor to respond to charges of "corruption" related to Jack Abramoff. However, in Taylor’s case, evidence of a connection with Jack Abramoff is clear; the answer to the legal question is not. The Citizen-Times, the local Asheville paper, claimed that Taylor received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Abramoff’s cronies. Taylor disputes the charge, arguing that the donations came from a Capitol Hill fundraiser shortly thereafter. Furthering the dispute, the Citizen-Times accused Taylor of writing a letter that garnered $3 million for an Abramoff client, a charge Taylor vehemently denies. "We did not accept any money for any type of action on my part. We have never done that," Taylor said.

Interestingly, Taylor helped formed the "Gang of Seven" in 1992, a group of seven freshmen congressmen — including John Boehner and Rick Santorum — who received rave reviews from the media for revealing the House bank overdraft scandal, which resulted in the resignations or retirements of 77 congressmen on both sides of the aisle.

Democrats have also targeted Taylor partially in response to his vote (or lack thereof) on CAFTA last year. Taylor claims he voted "no," a vote that would protect jobs in his district, but the House did not record a vote for him. CAFTA passed by a single vote.  Taylor has consistently opposed every free-trade bill in every form during his time in office, including NAFTA and the bill creating fast-track negotiating authority for the president. Despite his conservatism, Taylor recognizes he must protect jobs in his district and represent those who elected him.

On Offense

Democrats have found their challenger in the form of former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler. Shuler, a native of the 11th District, attended the University of Tennessee, just over the border in Knoxville, where he was a bonafide star. After being drafted by the Washington Redskins, Shuler played several years in the NFL before retiring due to a recurring foot injury. Upon his retirement, Shuler returned to Tennessee to finish his degree and open a real estate firm. Shuler currently lives and works in Waynesville. 

Shuler also faced marginal opposition in last Tuesday’s primary. Shuler defeated his Democratic primary opponent 75%-25%. Interestingly, more Democrats than Republicans voted in the primary. The margin, however, was insignificant.

Heath Shuler has no political experience, but he enjoys widespread name recognition from his days as a football star. His prospects in the 11th District are strong, as he is a social moderate. He has also received the endorsements of the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association and a smattering of other labor and education related organizations. 

Bill Sabo, a UNC- Asheville political scientist, and expects a dogfight. "People have claimed we've seen a lot of nasty races in the 11th District," Sabo told a reporter. "Well, you haven't seen anything yet."

Sabo argues that Democrats are annoyed because they've run good candidates the past four or five elections against Taylor and have nothing to show. Evidently, Taylor is really good at winning political races. More than once, Taylor has been targeted as "vulnerable" by the Democratic "experts," but he has consistently won by comfortable—though not enormous—margins. "Taylor seems vulnerable every election, and the Democrats never make any progress," Sabo said.

"The strength of the incumbent is the trust that they’ve tried to cultivate with their constituency," Sabo said. "To win, a challenger has to shatter that trust, which means attack campaigns.” 

As the races stands now, however, it doesn’t appear that Shuler is willing to run a smear campaign. He’s out pressing the flesh and raising a significant amount of money. In fact, Shuler has several times more cash in his accounts than Taylor. Though Taylor’s name recognition is very high, Shuler isn’t at a great disadvantage there, so his funds can be directed toward determining the pace and issues of the race.

This race may turn to mud-slinging, but right now, it’s quite cordial, with each candidate emphasizing his credentials. Surprising, considering the district’s history and Taylor’s vulnerabilities.

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