National Republicans went to great lengths to help former sportscaster Harold Johnson win his primary runoff last month in North Carolina, but as the 8th district general election gets under way, it will be interesting to see whether GOP leaders are serious about making Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell’s defeat a top priority this fall.
And if the 8th district race does eventually end up on the back burner, it’s probably a sign that all the recent interest in Johnson was borne more out of a desire to ensure that controversial businessman Tim D’Annunzio (R) wasn’t a part of the 2010 election story line.
Johnson may find out exactly where he stands this week when he heads to Washington, D.C., for his first fundraising trip after earning the right to face Kissell in November.
The D.C. visit comes a week after Johnson expanded his campaign team ahead of the general election. Johnson brought on Bellwether Consulting Group to focus on D.C. fundraising and added a new media consultant in Doug McCullough, who also does work for Sen. Richard Burr’s (R) re-election campaign in North Carolina.
Johnson said last week that he has “no doubt” that the national party views the 8th district as one of the prime races in the country this cycle, and National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Andy Seré called Johnson an “excellent candidate” who the party is “dedicated to helping” in the fall.
But Kissell’s pollster, Zac McCrary, said he’ll believe it when he sees it.
“I would be shocked if the NRCC spends dollar one on Johnson’s behalf,” McCrary said in an interview last week. “Republicans lost this race on filing day.”
It’s true that Johnson wasn’t the party’s first choice for the 8th district contest. Former seven-term Charlotte Mayor Patrick McCrory will be remembered as one of the top potential candidates who slipped the NRCC’s hook this cycle.
McCrary suspects that Republicans only rallied behind Johnson because of “the D’Annunzio fiasco.”
Though he had a massive personal fortune that allowed him to pump more than $1.2 million into his campaign, D’Annunzio also had a long criminal record complete with court documents detailing a history of drug use. Outspoken and abrasive, D’Annunzio was known for posting extreme views on a blog called “Christ’s War” and had the potential to become a national distraction for the party this fall.
In the wake of D’Annunzio’s first-place finish in the May GOP primary, fundraising support and endorsements poured in for Johnson, culminating in a Capitol Hill fundraiser hosted by top House GOP leaders, including Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), in mid-June.
But in Johnson, Republicans find themselves with a political newcomer who didn’t even live in the 8th district until earlier this year, running in a district that went for President Barack Obama by 5 points in the 2008 White House contest.
To put that in perspective, Obama fared worse in 64 other districts held by House Democrats than he did in North Carolina’s 8th district.
That gives the NRCC, which was badly trailing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in cash on hand totals at the end of May, a lot of other districts to spend its money on this fall.
But Kissell’s vulnerabilities are also clear.
He has angered some of his Democratic base with a conservative voting record.
His “no” vote on Obama’s health care plan was a major reason progressive groups tried to recruit a third party candidate to challenge Kissell from the left. Kissell dodged that bullet in late June when Wendell Fant, a former Kissell staffer, announced that he would not enter the race even though a labor-backed group in the state collected tens of thousands of signatures to put him on the ballot.
And while Democrats say Kissell’s voting record will play well in his battleground district, Republicans are convinced there’s one vote in particular that will prove to be Kissell’s undoing: his vote to elect Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.
“The message is very clear,” Johnson said. “If you’re happy with the direction of the country right now, if you’re happy with Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, vote for Larry.”
Kissell is also a notoriously poor fundraiser who represents a district that requires candidates to buy air time in the expensive Charlotte and Raleigh media markets.
Kissell raised just $72,000 in the first three months of the year — an especially poor showing for a potentially vulnerable freshman.
And it seems as if Kissell operatives aren’t expecting a stellar second quarter, either.
“This [campaign] is going to be run on a shoestring budget again, which is not ideal but those of us who have been in the trenches with Kissell know that is something that we can overcome,” McCrary said.
Kissell was outspent 2-to-1 in his winning 2008 campaign against then-Rep. Robin Hayes (R). And in his 2006 campaign against Hayes, when he lost by just a few hundred votes, Kissell was outspent 3-to-1.
It remains unclear just how strong a fundraiser Johnson will be. He has name identification in the district stemming from his many years covering local sports as well as personal resources that allowed him to drop $300,000 of his own on his primary. But Johnson’s upcoming financial report likely won’t be the best place to judge his general election fundraising ability since the runoff was just eight days before the second quarter filing deadline.
One North Carolina Republican consultant said the next two months will be a crucial time for Johnson to demonstrate he’s a serious general election candidate.
“If you don’t have [a strong fundraising showing] by Labor Day it’s going to be much harder afterward because people are not going to see you as viable,” the consultant said.