As I drive up I-85 from Charlotte, the gasping banking center's gleaming buildings and New South atmosphere gradually fade from view, and cultural markers in the blue-collar town of Concord appear. Past the exit to NASCAR's Charlotte Motor Speedway, and just past the site of the demolished Pillowtex textile mill, like a sentinel standing guard at the western border of District 8, stands a tall black-and-white billboard that reads, "Tim D'Annunzio, Conservative Republican for Congress."
That billboard shouldn't be there.
District 8 was supposed to be a long-contested prize now firmly in Democratic control. Barack Obama made history in 2008 when he put North Carolina into the Democratic fold, and pulled along with him newcomer Congressman Larry Kissell. Kissell's win was nothing short of an upset -- Robin Hayes, the Republican incumbent, had won five consecutive elections. And money, for once, wasn't the decisive factor -- Hayes raised more than $3 million, compared to Kissell's $1 million.
This modern-day remake of the David-versus-Goliath story wasn't based on miracles, but on hard political realities, foremost of which was the loss of textile jobs -- it was incumbent Robin Hayes' 2005 sudden change in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement that jump-started Kissell's campaign. Kissell hammered Hayes for that vote in his TV and newspaper ads, and it struck a chord with District 8 voters. Obama's coattails didn't hurt.
But like Obama, Kissell has caught flak for spiraling job losses. And while Kissell's votes against health care and cap and trade pleased most of his small-town constituents, they sparked outrage from many Democrats.
Lauren Slepian, Tim D'Annunzio's communication director, pegged jobs as Kissell's greatest vulnerability. "Larry Kissell means well," she told me. "But he doesn't know how to bring in jobs. That's what this District needs. And Tim D'Annunzio knows how to create jobs. He's brought 300 here to Raeford."
D'Annunzio's life story is pure electoral gold. Raised in modest circumstances in Philadelphia, he entered the U.S. Army and eventually qualified as a Golden Knight, the Army's elite parachute team. He moved to the small town of Raeford in central North Carolina and founded Paraclete Armor, which manufactured armored vests that can be quickly removed with a ripcord -- a life-saving feature in battlefield situations. Here in Concord, where many businesses fly the black-and-white MIA flag beside NASCAR flags, the appeal to jobs and national security is a strong one.
Kissell faces another Republican challenger on the far-eastern side of District 8, which borders Fort Bragg. That's where Lou Huddleston was born. I called Matt McCullough, Huddleston's campaign manager, and asked what differentiates Huddleston's campaign from D'Annunzio's. Huddleston, he pointed out, is a North Carolina native with a "common-sense, conservative message."
McCullough described a candidate who's entered this congressional race armed with his own electoral gold. An African-American who retired from the U.S. Army as a full colonel, Lou Huddleston now serves on a number of corporate boards. Huddleston's website stresses his North Carolina roots and his no-compromise, traditional stance on marriage, gun rights, and abortion.
McCullough ticked off the hot issues: jobs, Federal spending, national security -- problems, he reminded me, that Huddleston has faced first-hand. I mentioned Kissell's commitment to protect American jobs. "Under Larry Kissell's watch," replied McCullough, "North Carolina's Eighth Congressional District has lost over 22,000 jobs." As to whether Kissell's Blue-Dog Democratic credentials might see him through this race, he answered, "the Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress are lurching our country to the left. Larry Kissell has been part of the problem, voting with Nancy Pelosi's liberal agenda 96% of the time."
But could the overlapping platforms and résumés of these Republican candidates work to Kissell's advantage? It's easy to imagine how razor-close polls in the final weeks leading up to the May 4th Republican primary could tempt the two camps to target each other over more personal issues, generating ammunition for Kissell. And Kissell's vote against Obama's health care bill suits his conservative district.
Both the Huddleston and D'Annunzio camps dismiss this scenario. "We are all united in the goal of defeating the Pelosi-Kissell regime in November," said Matt McCullogh. Lauren Slepian, speaking for Tim D'Annunzio, agreed Kissell's vote against health care wouldn't be enough to distance him from what voters suspect is an administration hostile to their values. Then she added, "Tim has pledged to unite around the eventual nominee if it is not him."
I caught up with June Mabry, the Eighth District Democratic chair. Turns out Kissell claims some electoral gold, too, which Mabry burnished for the record: He worked in a textile mill that closed. He switched to a career as a teacher. As a citizen-politician, he promised to protect jobs, and to never reduce Medicare -- two promises he's kept, said Mabry, despite the political pressure. "And I admire that."
Has that weakened his base? "Yes," Mabry said, "some Democrats are upset about his votes against cap and trade, and health care. But he felt cap and trade would hurt family farms. And the health care proposal at that time would've reduced Medicare benefits. I admire his convictions, even if I don't always agree with his votes."
Has he failed to protect jobs? Mabry bristles at this. "You can't turn around 20 years of policy in one year. A lot of jobs have gone overseas, thanks in part to Robin Hayes breaking his promise to vote against CAFTA. Plus, we inherited a recession. People have to understand what we're up against."
I ask Mabry's opinion of what we can expect come November. "This will be a contest. A real contest."
Lauren Slepian, Tim D'Annunzio's communication director, agrees. She says her candidate is ready for it. "We just put up another billboard right outside Kissell's campaign headquarters."
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