Every ten years, the political party in power gets to redraw voting district lines in its favor. Republicans did it in North Carolina this year, leaving incumbent Democrats at a disadvantage in several Congressional races such as NC-8, where traditionally conservative portions of Rowan and Davidson Counties are now in the boundaries.
Running for Congress is tough as it is – you’re up for re-election every two years, which means you’re constantly campaigning and raising money.
Plus, most people in your district have no clue who you are.
At the Bar-B-Q Center in Lexington, North Carolina recently, Jimmy Davis hesitated at length when asked who his Congressman was.
“Uh, right now I can’t even think of his name,” concluded Davis.
“I wouldn’t know (him) by name,” responded Robby Varner to the same question.
At the Bar-B-Q Center the big question is whether to get white or dark pit-cooked chicken meat on the barbecue combo plate – the diner’s big seller.
And folks in this area may find that choice easier than the one they’ll face in the voting booth next Tuesday when they discover they’re in a completely different congressional district.
If they don’t recognize the names on the ballot, they may just vote according to their party affiliation. That’s what Democrat Larry Kissell hopes to avoid - and why he’s been crunching through fallen leaves in a neighborhood near downtown Lexington.
“I’m just out knocking on doors,” says Kissell when a woman opens the door. “This is gonna be part of the new 8th District. I represent the 8th District now.”
The 8th Congressional District has long been a tight race, but redistricting stripped some of its more reliably Democratic areas and replaced them with solidly Republican portions of Rowan and Davidson County.
So Larry Kissell doesn’t mention he’s a Democrat when he knocks on doors.
“So much of what we hear about Congress is the latest vote – but you know, I grew up down here,” Kissell tells the woman at the door.
He talks about his years in a textile mill and his support of Buy American policies.
Since this area is new to his district, Kissell can’t tout what he’s done for these voters, as he normally might on the campaign trail.
But Kissell says he’s found the issues of concern to voters in the new areas of his district are familiar: “The issues . . . don’t stop at a district line – the same policies that took our jobs away from places in old 8th district are same policies that affected these people up here.”
The 8th District now consists more uniformly of economically-depressed former mill towns. The pamphlet Kissell leaves on each doorstep touts his plan to “Restore American Manufacturing” by ending unfair trade deals and eliminating excessive government regulation.
“He does talk a good game - and uses some of the same phrases I use,” says Kissell’s challenger, Republican Richard Hudson.
Hudson’s challenge is to make sure voters know he’s the Republican in this race.
He rallied supporters last week at Rowan County Republican Party headquarters in Salisbury.
“You know my opponent is running around the district saying he’s a conservative, and he’s going around looking for more conservatives for Kissell,” said Hudson at the rally. “But if you look at his record, he’s as liberal as it gets. Three years he voted 90 percent with Barack Obama. Sound like a conservative?”
When talking about Kissell’s record, Hudson has to pick and choose because Kissell’s agreement with Democrats has been closer to 70 percent some years - and Kissell has voted against key Democratic initiatives including the Affordable Care Act.
To be rallied by a Republican congressional candidate is somewhat novel for Rowan County, since it’s long been part of the conservative 6th District which has been won handily by a Republican for decades.
Now Rowan County Republican Party Chairman Greg Edds finds himself in the contested 8th District.
“We see this not as a hindrance to Rowan Coutny, but we see Rowan County as an asset to that district to be able to help replace a Democrat that we disagree with,” says Edds.
Meanwhile Democrats used to being completely outnumbered in conservative Davidson and Rowan Counties are feeling energized to be in the new 8th District.
“It’s an expectation that perhaps for the first time in a long-long-time there will be someone who values the opinions that I would express,” says Loretta Martin, past chairwoman of the Davidson County Democratic Party.
How’s that for ironic? In a quirk of redistricting, Republican lawmakers drew a map that has give Democrats in this conservative region of the state a new glimmer of hope.