In a tumultuous election year, with Republicans seeking to regain control of Congress, North Carolina's 11th Congressional District is an appealing target. Comprising both urban, Democratic Asheville and the more Republican-leaning surrounding counties, the district is rated “Republican +6” by the Cook Partisan Voting Index.
Incumbent Heath Shuler, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, is fighting for a third term. The former Washington Redskins quarterback crushed his last Republican challenger, former Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower, in 2008. But after siding with Republicans in opposing health-care-reform legislation and the repeal of the “don't ask, don't tell” policy, Shuler made a surprisingly weak showing against unknown opponent Aixa Wilson in the primary.
Challenger Jeff Miller, a Hendersonville businessman, is best known for starting the HonorAir program, which flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial. Miller emerged from a six-sided electoral brawl in the GOP primary, narrowly avoiding a runoff.
Shuler has collected endorsements from the Sierra Club and the National Education Association; the GOP, meanwhile, has tagged Miller as one of its up-and-coming “young guns,” and the Republican-leaning group Americans for Job Security is spending $712,000 on ads attacking Shuler.
Miller himself, though, says he hadn't considered running until veterans he'd met through HonorAir, as well as his son's high-school friends, urged him to do so.
“It was weird to have these bookend generations approaching me at the same time with similar concerns,” he notes. “We've got to get people back to work. Look at everything that's wrong right now: It usually goes back to people not having jobs.”
These days, that word is looming large in every candidate’s message. Shuler says his main issue is “job creation and our economy, along with debt and the deficit. We've got to close tax loopholes that help these companies that ship jobs overseas, and focus on encouraging manufacturing jobs. Clean energy is one big way we can do that, to give us independence from the Middle East.”
Miller likewise says he plans to go after “the national deficit. … That's a nonpartisan concern.” His approach, however, differs from Shuler's.
“Whatever stimulus money was left, whatever TARP funds we got back, would go to paying that down, as well as really cutting spending,” says the challenger, adding that he blames both parties for the rise in spending. Asked for specifics, Miller says, “Everything except, initially, defense and veterans’ benefits would be up for scrutiny.” He also advocates a freeze on federal hiring and raises, along with “less taxes and less unreasonable requirements.”
Miller cautions: “I don't have some vision of a mass whack on any one department; I don't think that's practical. But the growth has been unreasonable, and we can do more with less.”
Defense and entitlement spending, however, account for a big chunk of the federal budget, and contrary to what some of Shuler's ads claim, Miller declares: “That's a promise we've made and have to keep. I am in no way in favor of being part of anything that goes after Social Security,” though he does advocate “removing the waste and the fraud.”
Shuler, meanwhile, says we should “conduct government more like a business. You can't just borrow the money from the Chinese or print money.” He points to his role in passing pay-as-you-go rules for proposed legislation.
Having voted with Republicans on major initiatives and taken stands on abortion and immigration that aren't far from the Republican platform, Shuler explains: “I always vote for my district. I look at the policy, not the party.”
And though Shuler opposed the health-care-reform bill, he says he wouldn’t seek to repeal it, because he supports things like preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
Asked where his positions differ from Miller’s, Shuler cites “our energy and environmental policies. … I want to build our economy back, and I feel clean energy is a matter of national security. The U.S. consumes 25 percent of the world's petroleum; we have less than 3 percent of the world's reserves. We have to find alternatives, and clean alternatives. The Chinese have just put in $700 billion to find new, innovative technologies. It's time for us to start building things back in America. Our energy policy threatens our defense and our environment.”
For his part, Miller says he doesn't oppose “reasonable [environmental] regulation,” supports “managing forests” as a balance between business and environmental interests, and would have liked to see stimulus funds go to maintaining and improving the Blue Ridge Parkway. But the candidates differ on proposed climate-change legislation, which Shuler has supported.
And over time, the rhetoric has become more heated. Attack ads from Shuler's campaign have blasted Miller as beholden to “special interests” and Wall Street; meanwhile, Miller's campaign has painted Shuler's as “lies” “more lies” and, in one case, “a sad trail of lies harder to follow than a flea flicker.”
Shuler says: “I haven't watched any of his commercials, so I've yet to see. I have a very young family; we try not to put them in that situation. In desperate times, people will say anything.”
Miller says the candidates had agreed to forswear negative campaigning, but that Shuler “came out and attacked me with what was false. I asked him to stop; their response was saying I should quit whining. It's just gotten more negative since that. I'll never do anything but tell the truth.”
Campaigns aside, Shuler says the difference between the two candidates boils down to “leadership: an ability to work with both sides of the aisle. I've been … chair of the National Prayer Breakfast, chair of the subcommittee on small business, leadership of Blue Dog caucus. It's going to take some strong leadership to get us forward; it's going to take someone willing to work across party lines, and I've proven that.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.