Rep. Mike McIntyre is turning out to be harder to dislodge than Republicans predicted when they redistricted the North Carolina Democrat into a GOP-leaning seat.
There is generally good news for Tarheel State Republicans as Nov. 6 approaches: They appear on track to pick up three Democratic-held seats in the House of Representatives this November - those of retiring Reps. Brad Miller and Heath Shuler and the seat of vulnerable Rep. Larry Kissell. The lone piece of bad news: Ousting the eight-term McIntyre is going to be more difficult than originally expected - if he is beaten at all.
"There's a lot of concern on the Republican side," a longtime, influential North Carolina GOP consultant said. "McIntyre is going to be hard to shake loose."
McIntyre, a conservative Democrat first elected in 1996, managed to survive a GOP wave election in 2010, winning with 54 percent of the vote. But during the decennial redistricting process, the Republican-controlled legislature adjusted his 7th district to be more Republican and without much of McIntyre's home base in Robeson County. The new district would have voted 42 percent for Barack Obama in 2008 and 62 percent for Sen. Richard Burr (R) in 2010.
Despite the good baseline numbers, Republicans in the state are privately expressing increasing worry about the race.
The crux of the concern is not the candidate - state Sen. David Rouzer is a credible, if not particularly dynamic challenger - or his campaign, which appears to be tightly run. It's that McIntyre has a surprisingly resilient support among independents and has painted almost none of the easy Democratic bull's-eyes on his back for Republicans to target.
The fact that McIntyre is an anti-abortion rights, NRA-endorsed Member who voted against Obama's Affordable Care Act makes him harder for the GOP to pigeonhole as a by-the-book Democrat, especially among the new voters in the district. Indeed, one of McIntyre's recent campaign ads calls the Congressman a "strong conservative and Christian who walks his faith every day," muddying the waters a bit because it never mentions his party affiliation.
The race is still most definitely a tossup, but it's one in which the GOP has a less-than-easy path to hew in knocking McIntyre down while building up Rouzer as an acceptable alternative. For North Carolina Democrats, the McIntyre race is a bright spot amidst a dismal Tar Heel landscape.
"Frankly, I think he's looking better and better," one top Democratic strategist in the state said. "It's the one race in North Carolina that is looking better and better."
But it's not just Tar Heel political operatives who have been watching this race closely. National Republicans have already taken aim at the Congressman, and Washington, D.C., Democrats have put him on the top of the list to defend. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have, combined, already spent more than $900,000 on the race, a considerable sum.
Both the expensive Raleigh media market and the inexpensive Wilmington media market cover the district, making targeting voters district-wide a pricey proposition. While McIntyre has been airing ads for the last month in both markets - and plans to be on TV through the election - Rouzer has stuck to the cheaper Wilmington market. Rouzer's base of support is in the Raleigh market, while McIntyre's is mostly in Wilmington.
At the end of June, McIntyre had more than $1.1 million in the bank. After a tough primary, Rouzer had only $172,000 in cash on hand.
But that cash disparity might not matter as much as it once might have. Third-party groups have taken a keen interest in the race. The Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC recently launched its second ad in the district, which calls Rouzer a "lobbyist-politician."
The Republican-aligned YG Action Fund, a super PAC formed by former aides to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), has also been on the air. So far, the group has spent more than $730,000 in the Raleigh media market, as Roll Call reported last week. The super PAC's ad knocks McIntyre for his votes for the "stimulus" and in favor of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
A poll from YG Action conducted by the Republican firm North Star Opinion Research, found McIntyre led by 9 points, but voters were easily moved to support Rouzer with negative messaging. In a poll of 400 likely voters in the field from Aug. 12-13, the Congressman led the challenger 49 percent to 40 percent while Mitt Romney led Obama 61 percent to 32 percent.
A DCCC-commissioned poll in late July had McIntyre up by an improbable 19 points; a poll from the Rouzer campaign, also in late July, had McIntyre leading by 4 percent.
DCCC ads have worked to tie Rouzer to the controversial budget of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), the GOP vice presidential nominee, which would fundamentally change the way future seniors interact with Medicare. The NRCC has pushed back against that messaging with its own ad saying that since Obama took office, McIntyre has voted against "every plan to save Medicare from going bankrupt."
In a recent ad, Rouzer's grandmother tells viewers, "David will protect our social security and Medicare."
One ad that caught insiders' eye was a gauzy, feel-good spot from McIntyre. Standing before homes with American flags waving in the breeze, he talks about how "faith and family always come first" in the district.
"McIntyre is a talented guy," a conservative Republican operative in the state said. "He's running these ads that, I mean, Jesus Lord, you'd think Jesse Helms is running. I'm serious: flag and God and all this stuff."
Despite their concerns, Republicans still see a path to a GOP pickup and expect this race to tighten in the weeks ahead.
"This is going to be an out and out ... drag-out battle to the end," one Washington, D.C., Republican closely watching the race said.