Campaign Crawlers

The GOP’s Not-So-Friendly Fire

How to lose in a winnable district.

By 5.26.10

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Larry Kissell has got to be lovin' it.

A Democrat from the conservative-leaning Eighth Congressional District in central North Carolina, Kissell has spent the latter half of his freshman term wringing his hands. His fundraising numbers are dismal, he faces reelection in a wildly anti-incumbent year, and his liberal base has all but deserted him. To beat him, Republicans had only to field a qualified candidate.

There's only one problem: they can't. A six-way primary in early May led to a splintered result with no clear winner. Since then, the GOP appears eager to do everything in its power to ensure that Kissell has an easy ride going into November.

It's factious squabbling that could end up crippling the party's eventual nominee. A runoff election is slated for late June between businessman Tim D'Annunzio (who won 37 percent of the vote, just short of the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff) and former sports broadcaster Harold Johnson (who won 33 percent).

Depending on the final results, the GOP might have shot itself in both knees and feet. That's because state and national Republicans have ripped D'Annunzio and rallied to Johnson in recent weeks, even though D'Annunzio was the top vote getter in the primary.

The reason can be summed up in two words: he's crazy. "What [D'Annunzio] could do to the party as our nominee is secondary in my view to what he could do to the country if he got elected," Tom Fetzer, chairman of the North Carolina GOP, told the Charlotte Observer Sunday. "If he got elected, for crying out loud, that would be a disaster."

Never one to be outdone, D'Annunzio has called on Fetzer to resign. But Republicans have good reason to be wary of D'Annunzio's colorful past, which includes a bitter child-custody dispute, a trespassing conviction, an admission that he took drugs, and some unorthodox beliefs.

"In Hoke County divorce records, his wife said in 1995 that D'Annunzio had claimed to be the Messiah, had traveled to New Jersey to raise his stepfather from the dead, believed God would drop a 1,000-mile high pyramid as the New Jerusalem on Greenland and found the Ark of the Covenant in Arizona," the Associated Press reported.

GOP operatives see such claims as dynamite in a potential match-up between D'Annunzio and Kissell --- who, for all his political trouble, has a squeaky clean personal record.

True to form, the dominos have begun to fall. Two of the three Republican governors to serve in North Carolina since Reconstruction have both endorsed Johnson. As has Robin Hayes, the Republican who held onto the 8th district for four terms before Kissell beat him in 2008.

The problem is that D'Annunzio, despite his past, remains popular with a good portion of the Republican electorate, even if he doesn't curry favor with the party bosses. If he prevails in the runoff, the party's establishment will appear laughable as they tread water on their past statements.

That factor alone could doom the GOP's chances in this swing district, where the party has the best shot in North Carolina of offing an incumbent and contributing to a takeover in the House.

Republicans are betting the farm -- and the cars, savings bonds, kids' trust account, and everything else -- on a Johnson victory in June. If nothing else, it shows how eager, even desperate, they are to avoid a D'Annunzio candidacy. That factor alone might give primary voters pause before they pull the lever for D'Annunzio.

But the strategy could backfire, too, particularly in an election season dominated by mistrust of incumbents and party regulars. Polls show the revulsion isn't confined to one party, either, so an establishment endorsement could miscarry easily.

D'Annunzio is playing off that. Even before the May 4 primary, he had cast himself as an outsider, once holding a machine-gun fundraiser. Now, he's even more eagerly claimed the mantle of party outsider. That could benefit him in the runoff.

Regardless of who wins, Republicans have done irreparable harm to their chances. Whether that will be enough to ensure a Kissell victory remains to be seen. If the tidal wave of anti-Democrat sentiment continues into the fall, a heated primary in the spring and early summer won't mean much. If Democrats' political fortunes are less dire, it could mean a lot.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.