Kissell's health care vote may end up helping his re-election bid
The National Republican Party has been after freshman Democrat Larry Kissell since the day he took office in 2008. This year the GOP hopes to reclaim North Carolina's 8th District - likely to be the state's closest Congressional race. And it's not just Republicans gunning for Kissell. In his first two years in office, he's managed to anger many within his own party, too. The sun is beating down on Larry Kissell's head and beads of sweat line his brow. But at least nobody's yelling at him about voting against the health care bill. Instead, he gets a warm welcome from Michelin North America President Dick Wilderson at an economic development announcement. "Please help me welcome one of those leaders who is helping a bright future being charted for North Carolina and America - Congressman Kissell," said Wilkerson, who praised Kissell for helping secure incentives to expand a tire plant and create about 70 new jobs in Stanly County. Good news like this is crucial to Kissell's re-election. He says it's the thing his voters care about most. "And while the economy has stabilized in so many ways versus what it was when we first went into office in January of 2009," says Kissell. "We haven't fixed it yet and there's a lot of things to be done. That's what we're gonna work hard on." Tough as the economy is, Kissell would probably much rather talk about it than health care. He's taken tremendous heat for breaking with House leaders as one of 34 Democrats to vote against the health care bill. Kissell says the bill made cuts to Medicare that he couldn't support. "I let leadership know early I made a promise not to do that," says Kissell. "I believe your word's your bond. I kept my word." That vote turned many in his own party against him, including some who campaigned to help him edge past Republican incumbent Robin Hayes back in 2008. "He hoodwinked us! Bamboozled us into knocking on over 75,000 doors in two years time!" yelled Charlotte resident Jasper Smith at a rally with other members of the Service Employees International Union outside Kissell's Concord office last month. Smith is now working to help the SEIU collect enough signatures to put a 3rd party on the ballot in November. But another big union - the AFL-CIO - says it will stand by Kissell. Then there's Nancy Shakir. She's a retired school teacher from Fayetteville and former Kissell campaign volunteer. "I was ecstatic that we had a congress person who was going to Washington to support the Democrats' initiatives," says Shakir. Shakir's pleasure wore off quickly as Kissell began to diverge from the Democratic Party line. For example, he voted against climate change legislation that limits carbon emissions. But his health care vote is what finally turned Shakir from angry constituent to political opponent. She's running against Kissell in the May Democratic Primary. "Better now than later because the longer he stays in, the more corporate money he will get and the harder it will be to unseat him," says Shakir. Kissell's freshman status is what makes him the most vulnerable of the three Democratic Congressmen from North Carolina who voted against health care. But that vote may not have hurt his re-election chances as much as critics hope. The 8th District looks heavily Democratic on paper, but polls show a lot of those Democrats are conservative when it comes to national issues. Now UNC Charlotte political science professor Eric Heberlig says Kissell can connect with those voters. "He can go to Independents, go to Republicans, go to conservative Democrats who didn't like (the health care) bill and say 'Hey I voted against it' and for them to see that Kissell is different from Nancy Pelosi,'" says Heberlig. "And that gives them a reason to vote for him in a year that otherwise they might not even consider voting for a Democrat." Kissell's health care vote also took some steam out of the Republican campaign machine. The week after the health care vote, the GOP's steady stream of e-mails criticizing Kissell temporarily dried up. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is known for supporting Republican candidates, even ran an ad praising Kissell for saying "'No to a government-run health care plan." The Chamber has contributed to the campaigns of some Democrats who voted against the health care bill, but not to Kissell so far. He'll need some new contributors, because labor unions that are now angry at him were some of his top donors in 2008. As of March 31, Kissell's campaign had raised $600,000 and had a little more than half of that still on hand. His Democratic challenger Nancy Shakir didn't even raise enough money to meet the threshold for filing a disclosure.