North Carolina can claim its own dog fight in this year’s political battles -- and it’s called the 8th Congressional District. The fight between Democratic incumbent Larry Kissell and Republican Harold “Just Call Me ‘The Big Guy’” Johnson has all the trappings of one of the most competitive elections in the country.
What makes the 8th so cutthroat? There are some key factors that play into the apparent closeness:
First, it’s Nancy Pelosi. Yes, she's the representative from San Francisco, about as far as one can get from North Carolina’s 8th district. But it seems that she is running in every district where there is a Democratic incumbent, and Larry Kissell is tied -- hook, line, sinker -- by Johnson and the Republican Party.
Second, it’s about vulnerability, and first-term members of Congress are the most vulnerable. Granted, Kissell has sought to differentiate himself from the national party, and voting against the health care bill (which matched up with the opinion of his district) can help. But he stood with his party, and that party tie is helping the Republicans brand him a Pelosi-Democrat, which energizes Republicans and irritates independents. Kissell’s standing wasn’t helped when an underfunded primary challenger showed his potential weakness, with only 62 percent of Democrats supporting his renomination in the May primary.
Next, the demographics, especially voter registration and behavior. By the looks of it, Democrats in the 8th District shouldn’t have anything to fear -- they are 49 percent of the registered voters, compared to Republicans with 27 percent and unaffiliated voters with 23 percent. But this year’s mobilization and energy levels among Republicans (reversing 2008’s Democratic advantage that gave Kissell his win) is giving some pause.
While this district is appears to favor the Democratic Party, in 2004 the district voted as North Carolina did, going for President George W. Bush by 13 percent. Then, when the political winds turned against the GOP in 2006, the district nearly unseated the long-serving Republican incumbent Robin Hayes, who won by only 329 votes over newcomer Larry Kissell in the congressional race.
Then came the 2008 Democratic mobilization campaign, led by Obama’s efforts. The mobilization wave not only doubled the district’s votes cast in 2006, but it propelled Kissell in his rematch with Hayes to win by 11 percentage points. Now, the pendulum appears to be swinging back to a political newcomer against the incumbent.
Finally, it’s about the “mood” of the nation and, especially in NC, voters ain’t happy. And when voters ain’t happy, no politician should take anything for granted, especially those in competitive districts like the 8th.
If Kissell hangs on, it will be one of the key victories to keeping the Democrats in control of the US House of Representatives. If he loses, it’s a sign that conservative Democrats in the South need life support.