Rep. Heath Shuler’s vote against repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law is the latest in a line of hot-button issues where he’s split with the Democratic Party. If the results of the recent primary challenge is any indication, that approach is costing him support in his party.
Shuler joined 25 other Democrats and all but five Republicans in voting against the bill, which would end the 17-year ban on lesbian and gay individuals serving openly in the military. In a statement, Shuler claimed that he cast the vote because the Pentagon hasn’t yet finished a study on changing the policy (although, if passed, the bill would take effect after the study is complete).
The last time Shuler voted against a major Democratic initiative was when he joined Republican representatives in opposing health-care-reform legislation. That legislation, like the repeal bill, passed the House of Representatives.
Both votes have attracted ire from left-of-center members of his party. While Shuler won the May 4 Democratic primary with 61 percent of the vote, his opponent, Aixa Wilson, was an unknown with no war chest and no campaign machine. It should be noted that in that vote, Shuler narrowly lost Buncombe County. For an entrenched incumbent, this is an extremely weak showing.
So I’ll have to revise my previous assessment. After the health-care vote, based on the conservative-leaning nature of the overall district (though not Buncombe) and Wilson’s relatively weak position, I believed Shuler’s vote was unlikely to harm him much politically. Now, based on Shuler’s primary showing, it’s clear his support has significantly weakened among Democrats and a stronger candidate with more resources would have made the primary a serious fight.
Odds are, most disgruntled Democrats won’t bolt for the Republican candidate, Hendersonville businessman Jeff Miller. But turnout matters in what’s likely to be a close election year. Those same Democrats may donate less or simply sit this round out.
Of course, Miller has his own possible issues. He emerged victorious from a six-way battle, but narrowly avoided a run-off. So far the Tea Party faction that largely backed his main opponent, Dan Eichenbaum, seems lukewarm to his campaign. At the same time, if Miller throws red meat to the Tea Party, he could lead liberal Dems (reluctantly) back to Shuler.
It’s going to be an interesting election.