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Party Label Is Kissell’s Biggest Liability Against Local Sportscaster

LOCUST, N.C. — Between meeting donors in the back room at a fancy downtown Charlotte restaurant and greeting spectators at the front gate of a local high school football game, it’s clear where Harold Johnson — the Republican challenging Rep. Larry Kissell — feels more comfortable.

Johnson, who for nearly three decades was the face of local sports coverage on WSOC-TV in Charlotte, was in his element Friday night amid the hundreds of fans who gathered to see the West Stanly Colts take on the Albemarle Bulldogs in what has become an annual rivalry matchup in Stanly County.

Very few fans for either team made it through the gate without a hug or a handshake and an arm around the shoulder from Johnson, whom most instantly recognized as “the big guy,” as he was affectionately known during his days on TV.

But when it comes to the political arena, Johnson still seems a bit out of his league. At a lunch meeting for contributors last week that was headlined by National Republican Congressional Committee Deputy Chairman Greg Walden (Ore.), Johnson rarely spoke and even had to be prompted to offer his opinion on what he was hearing on the campaign trail.

“He is new to this,” explained Scott Syfert, a Johnson donor who attended the meeting at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Charlotte. “If you see him out on the street talking to people or working the crowd, he’s much more outgoing and energetic. He was very quiet in there because that’s not really his normal sort of scene.”

Johnson still has plenty of room to grow as he transitions from the world of sports to the political game, but his biggest strength is already clear. He’s not a Democrat. And in such a Republican-friendly environment, that may be enough to knock off Kissell in the battleground 8th district.

Student of History

Asked what he knew about Johnson after the Albemarle Rotary Club meeting last Thursday, retired jeweler Chris Bramlett admitted that he had “no idea” what Johnson’s top issues are.

“In all honesty, it doesn’t matter,” Bramlett said. “We’re going to have to speak against the policies of the national Democratic Party, and voting [Kissell out] is the only vehicle we have to do that.”

On the campaign trail, Kissell works hard to highlight the times when he’s bucked his party while also trying to blunt a major line of Republican attack by explaining why he lined up with the Democratic leadership on the controversial stimulus bill.

At a ribbon-cutting event for an apartment complex in Locust that was funded in part through stimulus funds, Kissell asked those present to recall the dire situation the country was in in early 2009.

“We in Washington, recognizing how bad things were, were faced with some options,” the former high school teacher said. “I voted for the recovery because, being a student of history and having taught history in high school, I knew what happened in the Great Depression when you just don’t respond.”

But Kissell made sure to include plenty of criticism about government overreach.

“I believe that government works best when government sets the environment for people to be successful … and then gets out of the way and lets people do best what they know how to do,” he said. “Sometimes some of my colleagues inside the Beltway in Washington don’t know that that’s the best way for government to be successful.”

Comments like that and, more importantly, Kissell’s votes against the cap-and-trade bill and health care legislation have seemed to separate Kissell somewhat from his more liberal party leaders in the minds of some of his Republican constituents. And that could be a crucial factor in Kissell surviving the looming GOP wave this November.

“He’s kept his conservative values and showed that in some of his votes,” local developer Terry Whitley said. “I think he’s got a good chance because he’s got a lot of Republicans who like him.”

“I’m probably going to be voting for Harold Johnson, [but] if Kissell wins I’m not jumping off a cliff,” said Bob Barbee, who is in the insurance business in Locust. “I think he’s done a good job.”

Even Bramlett was willing to give Kissell some credit.

“He has done his best to represent the very conservative nature of his district within the framework of the national Democratic Party, which is totally alien to the vast majority of us WASPS in this area,” Bramlett said. But Kissell is in trouble, he added, “and the sad part of it is he’s a great guy. He just happens to be part of the wrong party.”

Johnson and national GOP strategists believe they still have time to drive a wedge between Kissell and sympathetic conservative voters in his district. One main strategy for doing it will be to remind voters that the Congressman’s first vote was to elect Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Speaker.

It’s a line of attack that Kissell clearly doesn’t enjoy talking about.

“They can keep talking about D.C. That’s inside the Beltway,” the Congressman said. “I’m outside the Beltway.”

When pressed about whether he’d vote for Pelosi for Speaker if he’s re-elected, Kissell was noncommittal.

“That decision will come when that decision comes,” he said. “We’ll see who’s there and what the measures [of the candidates] are. … The people of this district like to talk about how they are going to get jobs, and that’s what Larry Kissell is going to talk about.”

Fundraising Lightweights

The clearest sign that the race has to develop more before being considered top-tier is the fact that the NRCC left the 8th district off a list of 41 seats where it reserved television ad time in early August. Walden said last week that Johnson could well be on the next round of ad buys and assured the Johnson supporter he met with that the NRCC is watching the district closely.

The NRCC’s continued interest in him and, more specifically, Walden’s presence in the district touched a nerve with the Congressman last week.

“Maybe [Walden] could bring up [the Central America Free Trade Agreement] and remind people how he voted for that and what it’s done to our district and why we are in trouble,” Kissell said when asked about Walden as he was leaving the Rotary Club meeting.

But before Johnson can count on money from the national party this fall, he’ll likely have to first show that he can raise it.

Since entering the race late last year, Johnson has raised less than $500,000, and almost $300,000 of that came from his own pocket. Johnson saw most donations roll in to his campaign in May and June, as the state and national party rallied around him to defeat a wealthy but deeply flawed primary opponent.

Despite the influx of cash, Johnson was left with less than $90,000 in the bank at the end of June. And although he’s already known in the Charlotte media market, he will need money to raise his profile in the two media markets that overlap part of the eastern portion of the 8th district. A mid-August internal poll from Kissell’s campaign showed Johnson with 57 percent name identification.

Kissell has never been known as a strong fundraiser either. Among the targeted Democrats in the House, Kissell brings up the rear when it comes to cash on hand. He had less than $300,000 in the bank at the end of June. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved nearly $800,000 in air time in his district this fall.

Another issue that could hurt Johnson is the fact that he moved into the district at the end of last year ahead of running for Congress. It’s an issue that irked Jerry Helms of Stanfield, whose wife, Pat, tried to avoid shaking Johnson’s hand on the way into Friday’s football game.

“He conveniently moved down the road 30 miles to run. … He should have stayed in his own district,” Helms said.

Johnson doesn’t believe his previous residency will matter when he reminds voters of his decades of work in the area and the “R” that will appear after his name on the ballot.

“I’ve been in the backyards of all of these folks for 35 years. I’m not a stranger to these folks,” he said. “In November, when we’re ready to go to the polls and [with] the anger and the frustration that’s out there right now … they are going to see a Republican in me. They know me they trust me and they like me.”