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As both parties gear up for the high-stakes midterm elections, Republicans are keeping a close eye on North Carolinas 8th district, where freshman Rep. Larry Kissell (D) rode the 2008 Democratic wave to victory over five-term Rep. Robin Hayes (R).
Republicans know they need to recoup a significant portion of the territory they lost in 2006 and 2008 in the conservative South in order to regain the majority. Many party strategists believe that, with a strong candidate, reclaiming the suburban Charlotte-based district could be near the top of the list.
Larry Kissell is just not the right fit for that district, said Andy Sere, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman. This district had been hit hard by the economy, and the solutions Kissell is offering up arent working.
But Democrats argue that Kissell has built a broad coalition of support, including a strong grass-roots network, and that defeating him next year will be a tougher task than many Republicans might think.
To oust Kissell, Republicans are first looking toward Hayes, whose family has produced textiles in the district for more than 100 years. Hayes deep roots, Congressional tenure and fundraising ability make him a desirable candidate to try to take back the seat. But after five terms, another rigorous campaign might not be on Hayes agenda.
Hayes said he is still considering a 2010 run but that he is also working closely with the party to recruit other strong candidates.
My commitment is to have a candidate who can win this race, whether it be me or someone else, he said in an interview last week.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory has been mentioned as another top prospect, and he has not ruled out a Congressional run. His office declined to comment for this story, as did Kissells office.
McCrory ran for governor last year but fell short the first loss of his 20-year political career.
McCrory is the longest-serving mayor in Charlotte history, and he remains popular. He is not seeking re-election to an eighth term this year. In a note to supporters posted on his Web site after his 2008 defeat, he made it clear that he wasnt necessarily ready to leave politics behind.
I will be exploring my options and trying to determine what is my next calling. I gave this campaign everything I had and definitely had no Plan B, he wrote. I am proud we made a positive difference, and I have not lost my passion for public service.
If McCrory runs, the 8th district race would immediately become one of the top-tier races of the cycle.
Other potential Republican challengers mentioned include Union County District Attorney John Snyder and former state Rep. Mia White.
Republicans argue that Kissell is especially vulnerable because the 8th district Democratic turnout in 2008, with Barack Obama atop the ticket, wont be replicated in 2010. Black turnout in North Carolina and in the 8th district, where African-Americans account for 27 percent of the population was higher than usual and no doubt was a factor in Kissells victory.
This isnt 2008 coming up, said Chris McClure of the North Carolina Republican Party. The same phenomenons that happened with Obama and all that in 2008 wont happen in 2010.
Democrats are watching the developing race closely, but they dispute the claim that the textile-worker-turned-teacher-turned-Congressman is out of touch with the district.
Andrew Whalen, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, argued that the 8th district is trending more Democratic and that any Republican, be it Hayes or someone else, will have a tough time making inroads in Kissells coalition of support.
Kissell has done an excellent job of building real grass-roots support in that district, said Whalen, a former aide to Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.). I have no doubt that the NRCC is going to try the same tired, lame arguments that they have tried on other candidates on Kissell. The people of North Carolina are smarter than that.