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Race To Watch: North Carolina's 8th District

By Kyle Trygstad

It took two tries but Larry Kissell finally won a North Carolina congressional seat in 2008. The underfunded candidate with national party support outperformed Barack Obama to knock off a five-term Republican incumbent in one of the state's few swing districts.

But in a far less welcoming year for Democrats, Kissell enters his first re-election campaign as a top Republican target. And although Harold Johnson hasn't yet made it to the top tier of the GOP's Young Guns campaign organization program, Republicans have what both parties say is a legitimate challenger.

Johnson, a well-known former TV sportscaster in Charlotte, dropped $240,000 of his own money during the primary process, which was extended by seven weeks for a runoff with Tea Party-backed Tim D'Annunzio. The coffers-draining runoff will likely affect Johnson's second-quarter fundraising report, but many expect him to surpass Kissell in the coming months.

Kissell, a former schoolteacher and textile worker, defeated Robin Hayes in 2008 by a 10-point margin, two years after falling just a few hundred votes short of victory. After being outspent four-to-one in 2006, Kissell was again outspent in 2008, this time by more than two-to-one, though that was supplemented by $2.4 million in spending by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

However, the freshman lawmaker may not have as much help this time around, as the well-funded DCCC will need to spread the wealth to save the party's House majority. Kissell also won't have the luxury of Obama at the top of the ticket or his hundreds of organized volunteers blanketing the state.

"I think that we have an excellent chance to win this seat back this time around," said David Black, chairman of the 8th congressional district Republican Party. "There are a number of reasons for that -- one is that, let's face it, there won't be the kind of Democratic effort there was the last time."

"The other thing is," Black added, "Larry has seemed to do the impossible and that is to tick off both parties."

Kissell angered some on the left for his vote against health care reform. In fact, a group called North Carolina Families First, which is funded by the Service Employees International Union and its local affiliate, attempted to run an independent candidate against Kissell in the general election. However, Wendell Fant, who was recently fired by Kissell's congressional office for misusing a computer, opted against a bid early this week.

The group later stated it would no longer attempt to field a candidate against Kissell and was happy about his stances on Wall Street reform, Big Oil and unemployment insurance.

As Black admitted, Johnson has some work to do as well, as his primary and runoff performances were less than impressive against a candidate with outside-the-box views on some issues. In a district with three media markets -- Charlotte in the west, Greensboro in north-central and Raleigh in the east -- Johnson is not a household name everywhere, as he is in Charlotte.

The 8th district, which includes parts of Charlotte, extends eastward along the South Carolina border and takes in parts or all of 10 counties. The eastern counties are where D'Annunzio had his greatest amount of support.

"There have already been meetings held across the district with some of the D'Annunzio supporters," said Black. "I think that when those voters start to look at the options and evaluate who they want to vote for in November, I think they'll vote for Johnson."

Kissell has a populist pitch and is known for being strong on trade policy, one of the top issues in the district that's seen its textiles industry diminished. He ran against Hayes for his deciding vote on the Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2005.

This year he called for the repeal of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He stated in March: "I worked in a textile mill for 27 years. I have watched many of my friends and neighbors lose their jobs and their benefits to these unfair trade deals. I went to Congress to make a difference for working people, and I believe that repealing NAFTA is a start to reenergizing American manufacturing."

Still, Kissell is running not just against Johnson, a first-time candidate in an anti-Washington year, but also against a tide of unrest similar to the one he surfed into office two years ago. Even then he had extensive help, with the DCCC's assistance and MoveOn.org's independent campaigning against Hayes early in the last election cycle.

The Cook Political Report moved the race last week from a "Likely Democrat" rating to "Toss Up," explaining: "Democrats should have serious doubts about whether they can replicate the kind of turnout formula, particularly in urban Charlotte, that sent Kissell to Congress in 2008. The DCCC may have to make a hefty investment here if they hope to salvage this seat."