The 8th Congressional District race has become the political equivalent of a civil war, with Republicans bashing Republicans and Democrats sniping at Democrats.
On Tuesday, voters will finally decide the Republican nominee: former 8th District director Richard Hudson of Concord or former Iredell County commissioner Scott Keadle of Mooresville.
The race already has seen more outside money than all but three congressional races in the country – and all for likely less than 15,000 votes expected to be cast.
While Keadle and Hudson have worked to “out-conservative” each other, two-term Democrat incumbent U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell has riled black voters by moving to the political right in the 8th District, which was recently redrawn to make it significantly more Republican-friendly.
Kissell, of Biscoe in Montgomery County, has said he won’t endorse President Barack Obama, and he voted to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt. Last week, he was among five Democrats who sided with Republicans on repealing the president’s health care plan.
He’s also said he might not attend September’s Democrat National Convention in Charlotte, even though three precincts of his district are in Mecklenburg.
The same day Kissell voted to repeal Obama’s health care plan, the 8th District’s Black Leadership Caucus introduced a write-in candidate for November’s general election – Antonio Blue, mayor of Dobbins Heights and chair of Richmond County’s Democratic Party.
So in a district that The Cook Political Report has labeled “leaning Republican,” and where Kissell will need support from every Democrat he can get, he is sure to take shots from the Republican nominee and Blue in the general election.
“The big question coming out of the Republican contest is whether the losing side will be able to kiss and make up with the winning side after such a nasty runoff,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College who has closely tracked the race. “Larry Kissell is a Democrat who has to have every planet in the right alignment to win re-election.”
‘Most vulnerable’ Democrat
Since Kissell’s last race in 2010, the Republican-controlled General Assembly redrew the largely rural 8th District, which now covers 12 counties from Concord in Cabarrus County to Lumberton in Robeson County.
The new district’s breakdown in registered voters is nearly 46 percent Democrat, 33 percent Republican and 21 percent unaffiliated – numbers that could mean trouble for Kissell in November, Bitzer said.
The new district has 28,000 more Republicans than before, and 42,000 fewer African-Americans, who mostly vote Democrat.
“If you’ve got a base of registered Republicans in the range of 33 to 35 percent, and enough conservative Democrats and unaffiliated who are not afraid to vote Republican, that’s typically enough to make a district flip,” he said.
In 2008, Obama carried the old district with 52 percent of the vote. In the new district, his Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. John McCain would have won the district with 57 percent, Bitzer said.
It’s why The Hill newspaper, which covers Capitol Hill in Washington, called Kissell “the most vulnerable” Democrat in the country.
Tuesday’s GOP runoff
It’s also why the stakes are so high in Tuesday’s runoff.
The race between Hudson and Keadle took a nasty turn in the latter stages, as the bulk of $1.6 million from conservative groups and super PACs was pumped into North Carolina on behalf of Hudson and Keadle.
The 8th District runoff has been long on rhetoric, but lacked substance on issues, many voters in the district say. In the May 8 primary, Hudson won 32 percent of the vote, and Keadle 21 percent.
In three debates since, the two agreed more than they disagreed on issues such as shutting down the Environmental Protection Agency, cutting taxes and federal spending and protecting military spending.
Keadle, 47, has cast Hudson as a Washington insider who would buckle to the whims of party leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
He said a late injection of more than $700,025 from the American Action Network and the YG Action Fund on Hudson’s behalf was a signal that “establishment leaders” are concerned Keadle will be nominated. The YG group is tied to Cantor.
The Club for Growth spent nearly $711,000 on Keadle’s behalf. The Club also “bundled” contributions of $191,000, roughly half of what Keadle has raised from individuals.
The group is often at odds with more mainstream Republicans and has helped insurgent Republicans defeat entrenched GOP incumbents such as U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in primaries.
Hudson, 40, a former 8th District director for former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes bristles at the depiction that he is “mainstream.” He readily touts his endorsements from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum who called Hudson a “full-spectrum conservative candidate.”
Last week, Hudson also won a straw vote by the Davidson County TEA Party.
He’s criticized Keadle for voting to accept federal stimulus money for Iredell County projects when he was a commissioner there. And he calls Keadle a “career candidate,” who’s in his third U.S. House race in three different districts.
Hudson often reminds voters that Keadle doesn’t live in the district and consequently doesn’t understand its needs. Hudson said his family’s roots run deep in the district. He grew up in the district – in Charlotte – and has lived in Concord off and on since 1998, when he went to work for Robin Hayes.
During that time, he called himself “the district mayor.”
“I spent four days a week for six years traveling the district, going to ribbon cuttings, chamber meetings and farm bureau meetings,” Hudson said. “I understand how a congressional office works, how important it is to be accessible and have a staff responsible to constituent needs.”
Connecting with voters
Hudson said he doesn’t think the barrage of TV ads will have much impact on a low-turnout race. Connecting with voters will.
He said he’s assembled “grassroots organizations” in each of the district’s 12 counties, and his campaign knocked on nearly 20,000 doors before the primary, and since then 6,000 to 7,000 doors of expected voters – mostly in the district’s more-populated districts.
Otherwise, he’s on the phone calling them.
“Sixty percent of the people we’ve talked to didn’t even know there was a runoff,” Hudson said.
Keadle, too, has spent much of his time on the phone, leaving it up to volunteers to plant yard signs.
“I’m a full-time dentist running for office,” he said. “I’ll get out and shake some hands, but phoning voters is more efficient.”
Donna Wells, chair of the Anson County Republican Party, said she and other county party leaders had hoped the runoff would involve a more civil discussion of the issues.
“It’s a shame,” Wells said. “We’ve got real problems here. We need jobs. We have a lot of poverty. We wanted a more friendly campaign.
“The opponent is a Democrat.” Staff writer Tim Funk contributed.