CHARLOTTE – When Democrat Larry Kissell won a Charlotte-area U.S. House seat in 2008, he did so largely by riding Barack Obama’s coattails. The Obama campaign had registered hordes of new voters, many of whom are black, and succeeded in turning them out for the election.
Four years later, Kissell, like other Democrats in states where the president’s popularity has dipped, is distancing himself from Obama, pointedly refusing to endorse him. And Kissell’s moves are creating tension. Liberal Democrats feel he is turning his back on a president who lifted him into office, while the Congressman is making moves that may be the only way he can survive politically in a district that is now more conservative than it was four years ago, in part because of redistricting.
The controversy mirrors a political dynamic across the country. Democrats who were once close allies of the president, like Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, are opting to skip the party’s national convention in September to avoid being tied to the president.
Kissell’s non-endorsement of the president was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Walter Rogers, chairman of the North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus, an organization founded to support black political and economic empowerment here. The snub prompted the group to withdraw its endorsement of Kissell for his reelection bid.
Kissell claims he is simply representing his conscience and not shifting his views for political reasons.
“I am my own man and I vowed from the very first day I sought this office that I would not cave in to political or partisan pressures,” he says. “As the congressman for the entire 8th District, it is my job to act in a way I feel serves the best interest of all the citizens of our district.”
The liberals’ list of complaints is long. When Kissell voted against Obama’s health care law two years ago, Democrats here swallowed their disappointment and supported his successful 2010 reelection bid.
But they have been angered even more by the votes he’s taken in his second term. Kissell was one of 17 Democrats who voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for not turning over more documents related to the “Fast and Furious” gun-trafficking investigation. Even after the Supreme Court ruled that President Obama’s health care law is constitutional, Kissell was one of five Democrats, along with nearly all House Republicans, who voted again to repeal it.
His moves are not surprising: Kissell is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country. In 2008, he represented a classic North Carolina swing district in which 30 percent of his constituents were African American. But after Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2010, he lost many of the traditional Democratic voters through redistricting.
Now, just 18 percent of Kissell’s district is black.
Republicans also made the districts of North Carolina Democrats Brad Miller, Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre much more conservative through redistricting. Miller and Shuler decided to retire, but McIntyre and Kissell chose to wage their uphill reelection battles.
And their survival strategy seems to be based on distancing themselves from the Democratic Party and the president. McIntyre and Kissell are skipping the Democratic National Convention at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, even thought it is only a 30-minute drive away from one of Kissell’s district offices.
But this strategy has one main complication. Many of the white 14 Southern Democrats who remain in Congress are heavily reliant on the black vote in their districts. They must carefully appeal to more moderate white voters who don’t embrace the president while not alienating blacks, Obama’s most loyal supporters.
Kissell has little chance of winning reelection without carrying the black vote by a large margin, but he has apparently calculated that they have nowhere else to go and will back him even as he votes against Obama and Holder, two icons of the black community.
The Black Leadership Council here intends to prove him wrong on that score. The group picked Antonio Blue, mayor of the tiny town of Dobbins Heights and chair of the Richmond County Democratic Party, to run a write-in campaign against Kissell.
They admit that could help divide the Democratic vote and lead to the victory of Republican Richard Hudson, but say that since Kissell votes like a Republican, it hardly matters.
“The message is that if you are a Democrat, be true to what you are and vote in a Democratic way,” Blue said. “You can’t claim to be a Democrat and not support the leaders of your own party.”