A primary primer

What does it take to win the Republican nomination for Congress in North Carolina's 11th District? Ask each of the six men hoping to take on incumbent Democrat Heath Shuler come November and you'll likely hear six different answers — ranging from grass-roots activism to experience to faith in God to who's got the most cash.

Planning: Dr. Eichenbaum’s campaign consultant, Justin Wright, speaks to Eichenbaum — one of six Republicans running to unseat Rep. Heath Shuler — at the opening of the party's county headquarters. Photo by Michael Muller

An eye doctor, a retired cop, a dry cleaner, two lawyers and an insurance agent: Never in recent memory has the political field been so crowded. You'd have to go back 20 years to find a race that even comes close, when Charles Taylor handily defeated three opponents in the 1990 GOP primary and went on to capture the congressional seat he would hold for 16 years.

Taylor's loss to Shuler in 2006 created a leadership and organizational vacuum in the local Republican Party whose effects are felt to this day. Speaking off the record, one GOP leader compared it to the chaos that ensued following the breakup of the Soviet Union: "Charles Taylor was the Republican Party. Now you have all these rival camps vying for supremacy, and Republicans here aren't used to the dynamics. It explains why we have so many people running."

All six Republican contenders are social and fiscal conservatives. All six believe the federal government is too big; all are pro-life. They're also united in opposing corporate bailouts, the stimulus package and the health-care reform legislation passed last month. On paper, it's hard to tell these candidates apart. For that matter, on paper, it's hard to distinguish them from Shuler, who agrees with them on all these signature issues.

But in fact, these are all very different men — and in a sense, they could be said to personify the various factions of a national GOP that's still struggling to define itself in the wake of President Obama's definitive victory two years ago.

Six-man spread

Dan Eichenbaum — Dr. Dan to his supporters — represents the Republican Party's libertarian wing. A practicing ophthalmologist and a horse breeder, he was recently endorsed by the Asheville Tea Party organization, which is providing foot soldiers for his campaign. He's also raised the most money so far, breaking the $100,000 mark a few weeks back. He's promised to vote against all earmarks if he gets to Washington and pledges to stay in Congress for no more than three terms.

James "Jake" Howard, a retired police officer from Florida, is the former chair of that state's Republican Party Chairman, though his accent betrays his Brooklyn roots. In 1992, Howard mounted an unsuccessful bid for Broward County Sheriff, losing by more than a 2:1 margin. He now lives in Macon County and claims to have had a close personal friendship with former President Ronald Reagan.

Ed Krause, an Asheville attorney and novelist with a rumpled professorial manner, is one of only two of these candidates to have held prior public office, having served two terms on Madison County's Board of Education. He's active in the Boy Scouts, the Lions Club, Rotary Club, Habitat for Humanity, McDowell Trails Association and Pisgah Legal Services.

Henderson County small-business man Jeff Miller, whom many describe as the most moderate of the bunch, is the founder of Honor Air, a program that flies World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. In 2008, then president George W. Bush awarded Miller the Presidential Citizens Medal for this work, and despite his lack of political experience, Miller was recruited heavily by the National Republican Congressional Committee. He's racked up an impressive list of endorsements, including that of Sen. Tom Apodaca, the most powerful Republican in Western North Carolina.

Greg Newman, a former prosecutor who's now an attorney in private practice, recently served a term as mayor of Hendersonville — the first Republican to be elected to that office in the city's 162-year history. Newman has called for eliminating the U.S. Departments of Education, Energy and Homeland Security. He has the support of Nathan Ramsey, former chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

Clay County insurance agent Kenny West is the most overtly religious of the six Republican candidates and arguably the most ideological. References to his faith and the need to return the country to "godly values" are woven into his speeches, and visitors to his Web site can download a printable copy of the Ten Commandments.

Across the campaign aisle

11th District Republicans aren't the only ones holding a primary this year. Before squaring off against the eventual Republican nominee, Shuler will have to contend with Aixa (pronounced "Aysh-uh") Wilson, an archaeologist by profession who bills himself as a pragmatist, espousing a mix of conservative and liberal beliefs. A veteran, Wilson has attracted some attention from the left for his support of the recently passed health-care reform — the only candidate in the race, Democrat or Republican, to take that stance.

This isn't the first time Shuler has faced a primary challenger: In 2006, he roundly drubbed fellow Democrat Michael Morgan by a 3-1 margin.

Michael Muller can be reached at mmuller@mountainx.com or at 251-1333, ext. 154.

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