Swing voters are key in N.C.'s 8th District battle

CONCORD — Doug Conner hates this the most – starting over again. At 52, he finds himself unemployed, back in school, his health insurance running out and the future uncertain.

"I feel like the trickle-down theory has not worked," says Conner, a lifelong Republican of Kannapolis whose June layoff from Freightliner followed a previous job loss six years ago. "If it's trickling down, it's not trickling down far enough. It's stopping somewhere along the way."

Conner's frustration will be reflected on his election ballot. One of the candidates who will feel his pain is U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes, a Concord Republican who has represented the 8th Congressional District for the past decade and is in a political dogfight with Democrat Larry Kissell, a school teacher who nearly ousted Hayes two years ago.

"I think Hayes has played out," says Conner, who voted for Hayes in the past but won't this time. "If he's done anything, he's done all he could. It's time for a new agenda. I don't think he can produce any more for the working guy in North Carolina."

Folks like Conner, who split their ticket in the past, will make the difference in this hotly contested rematch, one of the most-watched races in the nation because of its 330-vote margin of victory in 2006. Polls and pundits suggest it will be close again this year.

National Democrats view the seat as one of the most hopeful pickups to expand their majority in Congress. They've set aside more than $2million to keep Kissell financially competitive.

Hayes needs to not only keep Republicans, but win the support of Democrats and independents. Registrations offer a glimpse at Hayes' predicament: 190,000 of his constituents are registered Democrats, 118,000 Republicans and 81,000 unaffiliated.

Kissell, a former textile worker from Biscoe, has tried to make this campaign about the working class – and its need for education, health care and jobs in particular. He blames Hayes' trade votes for sending jobs overseas.

"There's almost 62,000 people drawing unemployment right now," Kissell said while greeting voters outside a Charlotte library. "Unemployment has gone up from 3.1 percent to 7.1 percent since he's been in Washington."

Hayes points to statistics that show overall job growth in his district since he went to Congress.

Both men are right: The district, which covers parts of Mecklenburg, Union and Cabarrus counties and stretches east, has added jobs but also added people – and a greater percentage are unemployed. Doug Conner says the new jobs don't pay as well: “All of them are service jobs,” he said.

Hayes can tick off employers – in defense and auto safety, as examples – that he says he's helped woo to the district.

"But I don't go around talking about a net gain in jobs because we do have a very tough economy and we do have people not working, and that's extremely troubling to me," he says.

Unlike lawmakers who shy away from "earmarks," Hayes embraces bringing federal dollars home. He ranked second among N.C. members of the U.S. House at getting so-called "pork-barrel" projects, sponsoring about $44 million in 2008 spending bills.

At a church in Oakboro last week, where he was handing out a $1 million agriculture grant, Hayes explained to a small but appreciative crowd that the tax money was always "yours" but funneled back to them where they needed it.

To Gail Vowell, who moved to Harrisburg from Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Mississippi, Hayes embraces her values, truer than ever when he opposed the recent $700 billion bailout for Wall Street.

"When Robin Hayes voted against that last package, I was so proud of him that day," Vowell said at a GOP rally in Harrisburg. "I don't believe government ought to be involved in bailing out mistakes. I saw it after Katrina when people wanted government involved in their lives."

Vowell said she'd never vote for Kissell after hearing he didn't pay Social Security and unemployment taxes for about a dozen campaign workers, one of Hayes' biggest attacks of Kissell. Kissell says his 2006 campaign used contract workers, and that he's paying all required taxes for his full-time employees in this campaign.

One of the reasons independent trucker David Lee of Mount Pleasant will cast his ballot for Hayes is because of gas prices and his support for drilling.

"We can't survive without oil regardless of what other energy we need," says Lee. "We need nuclear power and things like that, and nobody is going to do that except Republicans."

Charlotte teacher Artie Denman differs on who will look out for education and his other interests.

"Overall, the Democrats care more about the middle class," says Denman, who chatted with Kissell at the Charlotte library Thursday.

Sitting on his porch on a tree-lined street in downtown Concord, James Ford is a registered Democrat with an independent streak. Three yard signs are posted in front of his century-old home, for Republicans John McCain for president and Pat McCrory for governor, and for Democrat Kissell for Congress.

"Robin's a hard worker, but he's been there long enough," says Ford, a boiler contractor and nonprofit volunteer. "I've had no luck getting a call back from him. Larry Kissell I called one time. Before the day was over, he was calling personally."

Hayes is part of the well-known Cannon family, known for founding the former Cannon Mills textile plant and supporting the community philanthropically.

When Gail Plott, known to friends as "Curly," is asked why he intends to vote for Hayes, he says simply, "I spent about all my life in Cannon Mills."

Outside Punchys Diner, down the road from Lowe's Motor Speedway and a Philip Morris plant, Plott says he thinks the government might have been able to prevent the textile mill from shutting down in 2003, but he doesn't blame Hayes for his job loss or for the other manufacturing job losses that Kissell pins on him.

"You don't know who to point the fingers at," Plott says.