The fine line between a Southern conservative Democrat and a Republican continues to fade – fast.
That certainly appears to be the case in North Carolina, where two of the remaining House Democrats have adopted the tactic that in order to win re-election, they must steer clear of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.
In the past two weeks, North Carolina Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell have announced they will not endorse Obama and, furthermore, plan to vote to repeal his signature health care plan.
In North Carolina, some former supporters say it’s time for Kissell and McIntyre to change parties.
John McNeill, Democratic chairman of McIntyre’s home, Robeson County, is more understanding. He says Obama’s lack of popularity in the state’s 7th Congressional District won’t help McIntyre at the polls, but he also encourages caution.
“Obviously from a pure political viewpoint, McIntyre has to separate himself from the president by a large degree, but by the same token I don’t think he needs to endorse the Republican economic issues,” McNeill said.
Others are less sympathetic. The former Democratic chairman in Montgomery County, Ralph Bostic, said Kissell should jump the aisle. And on Thursday, African-American political leaders who had supported Kissell announced they will not be endorsing him.
McIntyre and Kissell, of Biscoe, N.C., are seen as two of the most vulnerable Democrats nationally up for re-election. They survived the 2010 Republican onslaught by carefully tending to the temperament of the conservative voters back home. More than 50 Democratic colleagues from across the country didn’t make it, such as longtime incumbent Bob Etheridge of Lillington, N.C., who has said his vote for the health care bill cost him his re-election.
With the backing of such conservative groups as the National Rifle Association, the two Democrats take pride in their independent streak. They also have said they’re unsure whether they’ll join Obama for his nomination ceremony at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. McIntyre said he’ll be there for the first day of the convention, but maybe not when the balloons drop.
Fourteen other Democratic congressional candidates have said they plan to stay home and campaign rather than attend their party’s convention, including Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia told reporters in April that he was unsure if he will vote for Obama or GOP nominee Mitt Romney in November.The widening gap between some Democrats and the president raises the question: What does it take to call yourself a true Democrat? McIntyre and Kissell have voted with the party about 70 percent of the time in the current congressional term, according to opencongress.org, but they have repeatedly broken with their party on high-profile votes, such as those related to health care and the cap-and-trade climate bill, which are seen as a litmus test for some Democratic voters.The real problem, McIntyre says, is that party leadership has pushed its members into ideological corners, which prevents any hope of working together to solve the nation’s problems.
“Both parties are saying, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that.’ You can’t reach out and work with the other side because that means you’re not being a purist and you’re not being true to your ideological roots,” McIntyre said. “I’m not saying to compromise core principals, but at some point you have to be able to work together and find compromise if you’re going to legislate. Or else you remain at loggerheads and nothing gets accomplished and that serves no one. And that’s what happened. And it’s unfortunate.”
Kissell said too much of the focus in Washington has been placed on loyalty to the party and not enough on loyalty to the constituents.
“The job is to represent your district,” Kissell said. “If you go up there and you’re concerned about other people and their opinions of you then you shouldn’t be up there. You go up there to represent your district.”
Democrats cried foul when North Carolina Republicans redrew voting districts that made it significantly harder for several Democratic congressmen to keep their seats. Republicans hope to pick up as many as four House seats, including those held by Kissell and McIntrye. Democratic Reps. Brad Miller of Raleigh and Heath Shuler of Waynesville already announced they would not run again in the new districts.It’s not the first time redistricting has been used as a political weapon. The practice reached a boiling point in Texas in 2003 when Republican Rep. Tom DeLay made no secret about his intent to redistrict the state to the advantage of his party. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually stepped in and allowed the main elements of DeLay’s plan to stand.
Despite their votes on big issues like health care, Democrats need conservative members like Kissell and McIntyre if they want to retake control of the House. The party that has majority control sets the legislative agenda, chooses the speaker of the House and assigns committee chairs.
“The majority party has essentially a monopoly on the floor agenda,” said Andy Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University. “The members of the minority have very little influence, especially on legislation of national scope.”
It’s for this reason that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is tasked with electing more House Democrats, has pledged its support by reserving $1 million in TV advertising for McIntyre and $1.1 million for Kissell.
“Both Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre continue to win the support of Democrats, independents and Republicans because each of them have been independent voices for their districts focused on creating jobs, honoring our military families and protecting seniors,” said Stephanie Formas, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
One incumbent Democrat said leaders must often ask themselves how important is it to have a member with a ‘D’ instead of an ‘R’ next to their name.
“It’s a dilemma that many of us in the progressive community find ourselves in from time to time,” said G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson, N.C., Democrat among those who are angry with Kissell. “Would we prefer to hold our nose and continue to support a Democrat who does not support the Democratic agenda and Democratic values just in the interest of not having a right-wing Republican in the seat? It’s very frustrating. I don’t have the magic answer.”
Obama desperately wants to win the swing state of North Carolina again, but it could be tougher without the support of the two House Democrats. But McIntyre and Kissell are running in new districts that have been redrawn to include thousands more Republicans.
The candidates have likely held conversations with the president’s campaign staff saying it’s probably best not to run together, Taylor said.
They’d probably prefer the president not campaign at all in North Carolina, Taylor said. “But you can’t tell the president where to spend his time, because he’s going to spend it wherever he wants and you’re not going to be able to persuade him otherwise,” he said.