Republican hopefuls in 6th district grapple with political realignment

by Jordan Green @JordanGreenYES

Phil Berger Jr. made no effort to distance himself from his father, the powerful state Senate leader, during his campaign kickoff at Bethany Community Middle School in rural Rockingham County last week. The banner announcing his candidacy for the vacant 6 th Congressional District seat conspicuously dropped the “junior.”

“Dad is the conservative leader in our state,” said Berger Jr., who serves as district attorney in Rockingham County. “He’s taken the tough fight to Raleigh, and he’s winning. In the last session, under his leadership, North Carolina passed the largest tax cut in state history. They made voter ID the law of the land. And they’ve taken on the educational establishment, and they’ve put kids first, not bureaucrats. Talk about shaking things up.”

Berger Jr. struck a partisan tone by saying that his father hasn’t made a lot of friends in Raleigh and alluded to the Moral Monday protesters, who have poured into the state capital week after week to decry the far-reaching legislative changes enacted by the Republican supermajority.

“My guess is I’ll inherit only half of his friends, but all of his enemies,” Berger Jr. said. “He may not be making a lot of friends, but he’s getting the job done. And that’s a lot more than we can say about the politicians in Washington today. One thing I learned from my dad is that North Carolina conservatives keep their promises. And Washington, you’re about to get a brand-new North Carolina conservative.”

US Rep. Howard Coble, who has represented the district for almost three decades and has announced plans to retire, has been a reliably conservative vote in Congress. His legendary constituent services and genial personality dampened opposition from many Democrats who differed with his positions. As conservative fervor pushes the Republican party further to the right and the electorate becomes increasingly polarized, the question arises as to whether the eventual Republican nominee can bring along enough Democratic voters to cross the finish line in November.

“Howard Coble is such an entrenched Republican,” said Ferrel Guillory, a longtime observer of North Carolina politics at the Program on Public Life at UNC- Chapel Hill. “As is often the case with redistricting, legislators figured that he could withstand having somewhat fewer Republicans in his district.”

Redistricting in 2011 increased Democratic registration from 32.4 percent to 41.7 percent in the district, giving the party a plurality, with unaffiliated voters making up 22.3 percent of the electorate. More significantly, the percentage of black Democrats, who tend to vote more faithfully with the party, increased from 8.3 percent to 12.3 percent. Meanwhile Republican registration dropped from 44.0 percent to 35.9 percent.

The redrawn 6 th district shifted north from Randolph, Davidson and Rowan counties, and spread to the east and west along the Virginia state line, stretching from Surry County in the west to Granville County in the east. The new district, which includes major portions of Guilford and Alamance counties, also spread east to take in parts of Orange and Durham counties.

The 6 th district is among seven GOPleaning districts in the state with about 35-percent Republican registration, hitting a sweet spot to maximize the number of seats while making each district reasonably secure for the majority party.

Due to a number of factors, including higher turnout among Republicans and Democrats crossing party lines, voting behavior favors Republican candidates, with 60-63 percent of voters in the GOPleaning districts supporting Republican Richard Burr in the 2010 election, and only 40-45 percent supporting Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.

“It was clearly drawn to remain a Republican district,” Guillory said of the 6 th district. “It is just that the district because it has portions of Orange and Durham counties, is not the classic, old 6 th district. Because an incumbent is retiring, that gives Democrats an opportunity if they can do enough grassroots organizing to make a go of it. And it really opens up the reality of a Republican primary contest, with all the perils of Republicans fighting with each other.”

As the son of a powerful state lawmaker whose fundraising network helped engineer the Republican takeover of the General Assembly in 2010, Berger Jr. is both closely aligned with the party establishment and staking out its right flank.

Leaving Bethany Community Middle School for a second campaign stop in Burlington last week, the candidate brushed aside any consideration of moderating his politics to appeal across party lines once the primary is over.

“We think that our message of conservative values and hard work and traditional American values resonates with the 6 th district,” he said. “So it’s not about moderating or moving to one side or the other; this is what I believe.”

Rockingham County lies in the center of the rural, northern tier, which comprises roughly 40 percent of the district.

The more urbanized southern tier, along the Interstate 85/40 corridor, takes up the remainder, two thirds of which is in Guilford County.

Not everyone is eager for a battle to determine who is the staunchest warrior of the right.

The Rev. Dan Collison, one of two Baptist pastors in Guilford County who have declared their candidacies, noted that Coble broke with the tea party faction in the House to end the government shutdown.

“I don’t think it would be in the best interest of the district to have a race to the right because we have a large portion of the district that that would ignore,” Collison said. “One thing I perceive in the political races is the incredible polarization that’s taking place. If the losing side is virtually shut out of the conversation, especially given what looks like a significant effort by the Democratic side, I don’t think going as far right as possible as Republicans is going to be successful in the long term. We’re not going to be successful, number one, in prevailing over the Democratic Party in the general election; two, in representing the whole district; and, three, in being able to have a voice in Washington to be able to make good progress in the issues that we’re stalemated on, such as immigration, healthcare and education.”

Collison, who pastors Dillon Road Baptist Church in Jamestown, characterized the effort by some in his party to de-fund the Affordable Care Act by shutting down the government as “poorly timed, poorly enacted and just not well motivated, from my perspective.”

Collison and Mark Walker, an associate pastor at Lawndale Baptist Church in Greensboro, both oppose the Affordable Care Act without qualification.

Collison said he lived in Canada for 11 years as a missionary with his family, and was not impressed with his experience of socialized medicine there.

“What I saw as an outsider is that Canadians have lived with universal healthcare for a couple generations,” he said. “A lot of people go to the emergency room because they have a cold. Waiting rooms become clogged and waits are long. What happens is the people who can afford it come to the United States to have their tests done and bring them back to their doctors in Canada.”

Walker said that he views opposition to the Affordable Care Act as a bipartisan issue considering that the millions of people getting dropped from their plans are Democrats, Republicans and independents.

“It should be one of the top priorities to do everything possible to repeal this bill of economic damnation,” he said.

But Walker, like Collison, distances himself from the hard-line tactics that led to the government shutdown.

“I thought they were correct in bringing attention to how horrible this bill was,” Walker said. “My approach would have been to step aside and call a press conference with the Republican leadership, and say, ‘We’ve done all we can do.’ I don’t think anything was gained from shutting down the government.”

Not so for Don Webb, a candidate from High Point who has been active in the party for several years, including chairing the High Point Republican Party and serving on the 6 th District Executive Committee.

Webb pledges on his campaign website that he “will not vote for any continuing resolution that includes funding Obamacare.”

The candidate’s stances on social issues are similarly hard right. He favors making English the official language and “ending birthright citizenship for illegal aliens,” while favoring impeachment of judges “for usurpation and legislating from the bench” on issues such as birthright citizenship, prayer in schools and gay marriage.

One potential Republican candidate who might encounter difficulty with ideological litmus tests in the primary but find success attracting Democratic support in the general election is Greensboro City Councilman Zack Matheny.

Matheny voted with the majority of city council last year in support of a resolution opposing the marriage amendment. Voters in Guilford County went on to approve the amendment in a statewide referendum in the 2012 primary.

“I’ve said it many times: We had two laws on the books already,” said Matheny, who is seriously considering a congressional run. “If you are somebody that respects the constitution, you don’t amend the constitution unless you have a serious reason. I got married in front of a preacher, not in front of a politician.”

As an elected official who currently serves on the nonpartisan Greensboro City Council, Matheny is comfortable working across party lines and acknowledged he would have difficulty summoning anger against Presidential Obama on the campaign trail.

“You look at my community background; it’s substantial, comparably speaking,” Matheny said. “I don’t do things because I’m mad and I want to get back. I do things because I want to do the best for the constituent base, which includes Democrats and Republicans. You look at the Republican Party — we’ve got parties within parties.”

For the record, Matheny said he opposes the Affordable Care Act.

“When you’ve got the president apologizing,” he said, “you know there’s a problem with the bill.”

While Republican voters sort out their priorities, the Democrats are also making a play. Guillory noted that the retirement of an incumbent typically provides the opposition party the best opportunity to pick up a seat. So far, the only Democrat to declare her candidacy is Laura Fjeld, an Orange County resident who is the former general counsel to the UNC System.

“There’s clearly been a rallying around her by Democrats,” Guillory said. “I think Democrats sense an opportunity here.”

Collison said Republican candidates take their Democratic Party opposition for granted at their own peril.

“I do think they have a legitimate shot,” he said. “The planets would have to align just right. Mr. Coble had a diligent and faithful long run representing this district. That dampened expectations for the Democratic Party up to this point. North Carolina is still a swing state. This district in particular has a significantly larger number of registered Democratic voters than Republicans. If they had a really good turnout and a candidate that excited them, they could make a good play for it.”

He paused for a moment and added, “That’s a challenge, because Obamacare has Democratic Party written all over it.” !