Rep. Larry Kissell has the demeanor of a politician whose previous battle scars give him the confidence that he'll survive in a substantially more Republican district in 2012.
But privately, even some of his fellow North Carolina Democrats note the understated former textile mill supervisor and teacher has only a narrow path to victory.
"Giving a fair look at the district, it's an uphill slog," a well-regarded North Carolina Democratic strategist said.
After a GOP-led redistricting, Barack Obama's 2008 vote percentage shrunk from 52.4 percent to just 41.7 percent in Kissell's 8th district, according to numbers crunched by the state Legislature. Kissell's best hope for victory this cycle might be a nasty GOP primary fight to take him on.
Kissell said he's going to just keep doing the same things he's always done and the political aspect will unfold as it will.
"You know, inside the Beltway is a different world from North Carolina's 8th district, and I'm from the 8th district," Kissell explained in an interview in his Longworth Building office last week. "So it's about the people, and we do a good job, and the rest of it will take care of itself."
But the people of the newly drawn 8th district are a lot more Republican, which is one of the reasons there are six GOP candidates — most of them serious contenders — in the race.
Richard Hudson, a former Congressional staffer who was Texas GOP Rep. Mike Conaway's chief of staff until the beginning of October, is the early frontrunner. He told Roll Call he raised $260,000 in the fourth quarter of 2011 and had $239,000 in the bank at the end of the year.
But Hudson has been dogged by a familiar name to many North Carolinians. Former Winston-Salem City Councilman Vernon Robinson, a perennial candidate who was the Republican nominee in the 13th district against Rep. Brad Miller (D) in 2006 and a candidate for an open seat in the 5th district in 2004, painted Hudson as coming from the D.C. set.
"It's shaping up to be a classic Washington-insider-versus-grass-roots-conservative-leader race between Mr. Hudson and I, which is good," Robinson said. He portrayed himself as the true conservative in the race and said he raised $153,000 in the fourth quarter, not including loans.
Hudson, who worked for years in the 8th district for former Rep. Robin Hayes (R), brushed off the criticism.
"I'm not convinced Vernon is going to be taken seriously enough to be one of the top couple candidates," he said. "The truth is, I've got far more grass-roots supports than any of the other Republicans." Hudson also noted his more than 200 North Carolina contributors.
Hudson framed the contest as being about November. "I've got the consistent conservative record," he said, and "I'm clearly the best candidate that can beat Kissell."
Also running are neurosurgeon John Whitley and insurance executive Daniel Barry. Both have the potential to put their own money into the campaign. Whitley raised just $55,000 in the fourth quarter but plans to spend at least $500,000 in the primary, putting in his own money as needed, his campaign said. State Rep. Fred Steen (R) joined the race in December, and dentist Scott Keadle has been in the race for months.
The crowded primary field, the potential for heavy spending by multiple candidates and Robinson's reputation in the state for barbed rhetoric leaves many Tar Heel State GOP wise men fretting that the GOP candidates' antics could hand Democrats a victory in a district that should be safely Republican.
"Larry can't win on the issues. He can't win on his failed record. But the dynamics of a bloody Republican primary is a path to victory for him" said Hayes, the current chairman of the state Republican Party. Kissell lost against Hayes in 2006, but, buoyed by the Obama wave, unseated him in 2008.
"Republicans are scared to death of Vernon Robinson," said a conservative Republican political leader in North Carolina, who worried about Kissell keeping the seat if Robinson won the primary.
Kissell said he's not thinking about his potential opponents. He said the redrawn district lines leave him with a swath of new voters who are similarly independent to the ones who have sent him to Congress twice before.
"It's a moderate district, and that's where we've been," he said.
In 2011, Kissell voted 71 percent of the time with Democrats in votes where a majority of Democrats voted against a majority of Republicans, according to a new Congressional Quarterly vote study.
With the Democratic National Convention being held in Charlotte, in the same media market as much of the district, Kissell might find himself burdened by Republicans linking him to a president who will almost certainly lose the 8th district. The Congressman said he would vote for Obama in November, but when asked twice on what specific issues he supported the president, he noted only one: the elimination of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Another battle for Kissell in this election will be raising the funds necessary to mount his campaign.
Kissell's campaign said he had raised about $145,000 in the fourth quarter and had $352,000 in cash on hand at the end of December.
The Congressman expressed frustration with the state of Washington politics, but he said that work remained, especially on his marquee issue of keeping more manufacturing jobs in the United States.
"I'm not through with the things I want to do yet," he said. "The reasons that motivated me to run in the first place are still strong." But asked if he would be here for the long haul, working his way up the seniority ladder, Kissell shook his head.
"Long term, no, I'm not here forever," he said.