Columns » Exile on Jones Street

GOP-drawn districts and a torrent of cash could flip seats, but how many?

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Signs say that come November, a change is going to come. If that change doesn't happen, it'll be the biggest story out of North Carolina for the 2012 election.

It will mean Barack Obama won the state again. It will mean that the omens portended by the Republican tide in 2010 and then hard-wired into the electoral system through redistricting didn't happen.

The president may complete the same climb he undertook in 2008 and win North Carolina. But when it comes to the congressional races, it's nothing but blue skies for the Grand Old Party. Since the 2011 redistricting, the surest of sure things has been a pickup of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The only question is how many.

Polling and a big influx of money says it could be a lot worse. Today, the North Carolina congressional delegation stands at seven Democrats and six Republicans. The best Democrats can hope for in November is that the ratio inverts. Polling and conventional wisdom says it will be a lot worse.

You may recall that the GOP's successful redistricting strategy primarily packed Democratic voters into already strong districts, weakening the party's voting strength in four key congressional races: the Seventh District, which includes much of southeastern N.C.; the Eighth, which encompasses 10 counties in the southern part of the state; the 11th, which includes several mountain counties; and the 13th, which sprawls through parts of Wake and Durham and seven other counties.

Seventh District

Together, the races for North Carolina's Seventh and Eighth districts have attracted $3.8 million in outside spending. Karl Rove's Crossroads announced a major ad buy for congressional races over the weekend.

In the Seventh, the spigot is wide open. Johnston County state Sen. David Rouzer is trying to knock off eight-term Democratic incumbent Mike McIntyre, turning the contest into one of the marquee money races in the country.

Rouzer, the Legislature's champion of deregulation—including the anti-science sea-level rise legislation passed in the most recent session—is being heavily backed by an array of independent spenders including House Majority leader Eric Cantor's Young Guns PAC. According to Roll Call, Young Guns dropped another $200,000 in the race last week, bringing its total spending so far in the Seventh to a whopping $734,000.

In TV ads, McIntyre is talking about anything except his party affiliation. The ads portray McIntyre as a solid conservative, but his biggest asset in the race may be the president's edge among many active duty and retired military voters in the 910 area code.

Among the voters of the new Seventh, John McCain received 57.6 percent of the vote in the 2008 race against an untested Obama. But in 2012, Democrats hold a clear advantage on national security issues.

Mitt Romney is no McCain. Eventually he will find himself in a war-weary North Carolina town having to explain his saber-rattling, his omission of Afghanistan and the troops during the biggest speech of his life at the Republican National Convention, and, if there is a just God, what exactly he did in France while soldiers were dying in Vietnam. He'll no doubt handle that with same grace and ease we're accustomed to seeing.

Eighth District

In 2006, with virtually no national support, Democrat Larry Kissell narrowly lost his first race in the Eighth. He rode Obama's coattails to victory in 2008 and easily defended a challenge in 2010. With a new district and a well-backed opponent in longtime GOP insider Richard Hudson—he's backed by the American Action Network, which has ties to McCain and Jeb Bush—Kissell oozes vulnerability. Politico called him "the unhappiest Democrat in North Carolina" in a story explaining why he avoided his party's national convention held less than an hour's drive from his home.

He may be running away from the president—he voted against his party to repeal health care reform and to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over the Fast and Furious scandal—but he'll need all the coattails he can grab and more.

The Eighth is one of the top pickup prospects for the GOP, which is relying on a swing in the North Carolina delegation as a bulwark against likely Democratic wins elsewhere. It's such a big prospect that outside groups dueled in the primary for the right to help take Kissell down.

11th District

In western North Carolina, the 11th is looking like a true toss-up. Incumbent Heath Shuler's decision not to run seemed to set up an easy flip for the GOP. It hasn't.

Hayden Rogers, who served as Shuler's chief-of-staff, has proven an effective campaigner in the socially conservative 11th. He also has a highly organized Obama team on the ground in Asheville mining votes in what is likely to be an election in which turning out the base will make the difference. (It should be noted that heavily Democratic Asheville is now split between the 10th and 11th districts, diluting its clout.)

Rogers' opponent, Jackson County real estate developer Mark Meadows, is stressing all the small government, anti-abortion, tax-cutting points he can, but the geographically widespread 11th is an expensive place to run a campaign.

Like Rouzer and Hudson, Meadows was given a speaking role at the GOP convention in Tampa (hard to call 210 words an actual speech), but Meadows hasn't attracted as much national interest—and money—as his fellow candidates.

Rogers is getting mileage out of concerns about Medicare among the district's large number of retirees. He's also scored points by painting Meadows, who lives in the pricey community of Highlands, as being the one thing that really leaves mountain voters cold: a Floridian.

13th District

The first Democratic casualty after redistricting was 13th District congressman Brad Miller, who was "double bunked" with fellow Democrat David Price after Miller's apartment complex was shifted into the Fourth.

Miller contemplated a primary challenge in the new Fourth, but opted out. No strong, well-known Democrat stepped into the vacuum in the heavily Republican 13th.

The 13th is now former U.S. Attorney George Holding's to lose. A Republican, Holding faces Democrat Charles Malone and likely will spend more money on catering than Malone will spend on advertising. Holding won a nasty primary against Paul Coble that pitted two arch-conservatives with close ties to Jesse Helms against each other. It was North Carolina's first non-statewide race in which independent expenditures—via the Holding family and friends' American Foundations Committee—played a significant role. That Super PAC spent more than $500,000 just in the primary.

This article appeared in print with the headline "House for sale."

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