When Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler bucked his party and voted against sweeping health care legislation Sunday night, he certainly set off a backlash. But will anything come of it?
Xpress’ reporting on the topic, including the explanation Shuler issued Monday, has set off a torrent of comments, many calling Shuler a DINO (Democrat in Name Only) or other epithets and many asserting that he just lost their vote. Shuler, who received more contributions from health insurance companies than any other member of Democratic delegation, is being painted by many as a corporate shill.
Given Asheville’s left-learning political culture, that’s understandable: Outside the Tea Party and other conservative activists, many of the Ashevillean criticisms one heard in the months leading up to Sunday’s vote was that the bill didn’t go nearly far enough.
Now the question, however, is if anger at Shuler will hurt his chances for re-election, especially in the upcoming Democratic primary. Probably not.
If the 11th Congressional District was limited to Asheville or even Buncombe, I wouldn’t give Shuler very good odds of going back to Washington next year. It doesn’t, however — but rather, it stretches all the way to the Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina state lines. In the 2008 Presidential election, Barack Obama swept Buncombe, getting 56 percent of the vote. Not so in the overall district, which John McCain won, 52-47. The Cook Partisan Voting Index, which rates how much a district tends toward one party or another, puts the 11th at Republican +6.
Of course, stats don’t predict everything. Before Republican Rep. Charles Taylor’s long reign (which Shuler ended), the 11th was alternatively held by the very conservative Bill Hendon and the very liberal James Clarke. Determined candidates with well-organized operations and a rapport with the voters can buck trends.
Aixa Wilson, who’s challenging Shuler in the Democratic primary, has become a frequent topic of conversation as the progressive backlash increased and, likely now, as Shuler’s “nay” vote helps Wilson. But there’s no evidence yet of Wilson running the sort of aggressive campaign necessary to unseat an incumbent like Shuler. His Web site is vague about his platform, mostly consisting of promises to read legislation and stay away from moneyed interests (I’m waiting for the day when a politician publicly promises to pass legislation sight unseen and love lobbyists with all their heart). There’s no announcement, for example, of a sharply defined position on health care that might rally disaffected Dems to Wilson’s banner. Instead there’s an announcement, dated March 12, that he’ll listen to his constituents. It has three comments.
Also, despite Asheville’s seeming love of all things political — and status as the largest population center in the District — there’s no tightly-organized progressive turnout operation that might throw its support to Wilson in an effort to punish Shuler. While 2008 saw a massive Democratic turnout, that was due not just to the hotly contested election, but also to the massive, state-of-the-art organization brought into the fray by the Obama campaign.
Despite Ashevillean enthusiasm for all things local, it took outside organizers to marshal local progressives’ enthusiasm and get already-existent groups into the fold as part of a coherent strategy. By comparison, look at the miserable turnout Asheville witnessed in the last municipal election. What progressive political organizations there are tend to be small, based around one particular candidate or focused more on activism than elections.
Of course, this may change. Anger against Shuler may spread to other populations in the District and make it impossible for him to hold his seat. Alternatively, in a close year, (the Republican field, where six candidates are vying to take on Shuler, is a whole other beast), a loss of leftist support could hand Shuler’s seat to the GOP. This is politics. Today is not tomorrow.
But as it stands now, however repugnant many liberals may find his vote, there seems little possibility of their frustration unseating Heath Shuler.