CHINA GROVE Those in Washington who make a living at predicting election outcomes describe U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell as a political version of dead man walking a Democrat trying to win a third term in a district that is suddenly way more Republican.
But Kissell, 61, with his common-man image and independent voting record, has surprised the political pros before. He insists hell do so again Nov. 6 by making his case directly to voters in the 8th District.
Hes doing that partly by spending many mornings campaigning door to door, striving for the personal touch as he meets people where they live.
One recent bright Thursday morning, Kissell knocked on doors in the Rowan County town of China Grove.
At Sally Richards house, he petted her dog Lucy and bragged on his own four hounds at home.
When Billy Isley explained why he was out bleaching his garage a fox, possibly rabid, invaded the space Kissell launched into a story about finding a raccoon with rabies years ago on his country place in Biscoe.
And at every stop, this congressman who downplays party labels laid out a resume small-town roots, textile mill worker, high school teacher designed to send the message: Im just like the folks I represent in Washington.
Kissells approach helped him beat some long odds in 2008 and 2010.
But this year, his down-home charm might not be enough to save him in an 8th Congressional District that was redrawn by GOP legislators determined to defeat him. All told, they added 28,000 Republican voters to the district, which now stretches from Davidson County to Robeson County.
Though the two-term Kissell has refused to endorse President Barack Obama and voted against the presidents Affordable Health Care plan, the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent $900,000 in the Charlotte TV market on tough ads linking him to Obama.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, has telegraphed its opinion of Kissells chances by canceling $1.1 million of planned TV ads targeting his GOP challenger, Richard Hudson of Concord.
And a few weeks ago, the highly respected Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan guide based in Washington, changed its rating of the race from Leans Republican to Likely Republican.
But Kissell, whos been distributing yard signs reading Another Conservative for Kissell, said hes used to being written off.
In 2006, with almost no support from the Democratic Party, he came within 329 votes of unseating GOP Rep. Robin Hayes. Two years later, he won his first term by retiring Hayes, now state GOP chairman. And in 2010, Kissell managed another victory even as Republicans fueled by the tea party beat enough Democrats to take control of the U.S. House.
Weve gone into every election with people saying Kissell cant win and all we do is win, Kissell said. The prognosticators in Washington dont understand this district. My life is a life of this district growing up here, working in textiles, teaching school.
Kissell also professed to see the bright side in the redistricting, which took away Democratic voters in urban Charlotte and Fayetteville and replaced them with more Republican-leaning voters in small towns and rural areas.
In these new areas, people seem to have the same concerns that we have been talking about since 2006, he said. I ran because we were giving our (factory) jobs away. In our part of the world, the economy fell apart long before now. And nobody seemed to care enough (in Washington).
Mixed reviews from voters
Among the newer parts of the 8th District is the China Grove neighborhood where Kissell recently knocked on doors. His reception there offers a glimpse at his challenges.
Richards, owner of Lucy the boxer, called Kissell very nice And hes the first (candidate) whos come to my door.
But shes a Republican. Richards promised to read the campaign material Kissell left with her, but wouldnt commit to voting for him.
Isley, the retired Food Lion truck driver who was bleaching his garage, is a registered Democrat. He said he was impressed with Kissells background. If hes been in the classroom and textiles, hes got to be all right, said Isley, whose father worked at Cannon Mills for 43 years.
And yet, hes not necessarily a Kissell vote come Election Day. In fact, he said he probably leans to Republican Hudson.
Ill be voting for (Mitt) Romney for president, Isley said. And if I vote for Romney, hes going to need some support in the House and Senate.
Christi Higgins, a housewife who also lives in the neighborhood, is planning to vote for Kissell. But she spoke for a lot of other Democrats in the 8th District when she added this: Shes not happy with Kissells voting record.
I wish he was a little bit more liberal, she said. We will be voting for Obama and we like Obamacare.
That points to another stumbling block on Kissells road to re-election: His efforts to keep his distance from Obama Kissell even skipped the Democratic National Convention in nearby Charlotte turned off many voters in his party.
The congressman has even drawn a pro-Obama write-in opponent in Antonio Blue. The mayor of tiny Dobbins Heights and president of the N.C. Black Elected Officials group, Blue could deprive Kissell of votes he may need.
Kissell defends the cold shoulder hes given his party and the president, saying dabbling in partisan or national politics distracts from his job: representing all the people of the 8th District.
A lot of these folks questioned my predecessor (Hayes). He was seen as doing everything on a partisan basis. When I ran, I said, Im not going to do that, he said. I havent endorsed anybody at any point in time . . . Thats not part of my job. My job is to represent this district.
He also pooh-poohed the suggestion he switch parties.
Im a Democrat, he said. I was raised that way. And I believe in a big tent (party), where people with different viewpoints can work together.
Messages from TV ads
Though Kissell has made it a priority to personally knock on a lot of doors in his district, most voters in the 8th likely will get to know him on TV.
And much of what voters have seen there are national GOP spots blaming Kissell, along with Obama, for shipping jobs to China and running up the federal debt with an $800 billion stimulus package.
He is one of the dozen pickup opportunities that we have around the country, said Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Kissell has his own TV ads on the air $655,000 worth on cable channels around the district and on broadcast stations in Charlotte and Florence, S.C., that reach viewers in the 8th.
One of his ads features the congressman touting his efforts to push the federal government to spend tax dollars on products from TSA and Border Patrol uniforms to military badges that were made in America. Another spotlights a Republican supporter calling Kissell a man of character.
Both spots also tell viewers in the conservative district that Kissell has the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.
Discouraging poll numbers
Polls of the district offer different numbers: A GOP poll put Hudson ahead of Kissell, 50 percent to 41 percent. Kissells pollster found him ahead, 40 percent to 39 percent.
Either way, the numbers do not look encouraging in a district thats expected to go big for Romney and GOP gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory.
His main opponent isnt Richard Hudson, its Barack Obama, said David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report. There arent enough ticket splitters these days to give Kissell a good chance of holding on.
Kissell said he fully expects to fool the experts again by winning on Nov. 6.