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Republicans Hope Heath Shuler Could Be Weakened by Primary

Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.) has drawn a primary challenge from the left, and Republicans hope to exploit the intraparty battle to weaken him for a general election.

Since his 2006 election, Shuler has been a top target for the GOP, which failed to unseat him in the 2010 Republican wave. The conservative Democrat — who bucked his party this winter by voting against Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) to be the Democratic leader — also easily deflected a primary challenge last cycle.

But Cecil Bothwell, a liberal, self-described “atheist” who serves on the Asheville City Council, announced this week his primary bid against Shuler in the 11th district. Bothwell told Roll Call that he opted for a primary bid, instead of his initial plan to run as an independent, because he was not confident he could collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Shuler spokesman Andrew Whalen did not directly address Bothwell’s candidacy but did not appear concerned.

“The primary is more than a year away,” Whalen said.

Bothwell, who was elected to the city council in 2009, has an eclectic background as a painter, slam poet and author of eight books, including one on the Rev. Billy Graham and another on organic gardening.

North Carolina Democrats declined to comment.

But Republicans in the state hope the primary challenge would make Shuler more vulnerable to their candidate in a general election.

“Shuler has got to contend with the primary,” longtime North Carolina Republican strategist Paul Shumaker said. “It’s something he’s got to take serious.”

Shumaker speculated Shuler could move to the left in the primary, an unlikely scenario given he was elected as a conservative in a district that favors Republicans. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) beat President Barack Obama in the 11th district by 5 points in 2008.

Mark Braden, a spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party, similarly tried to flaunt Bothwell’s candidacy. “This primary challenge is proof that Congressman Shuler will be vulnerable in 2012,” Braden said in a statement.

History does not suggest that would be the case. In 2010, Shuler bested primary challenger Aixa Wilson by 22 points. In the general election, Shuler faced down a challenge from Republican Jeff Miller, winning by 8 points.

Bothwell previewed his campaign stump speech for Roll Call, saying he thinks free trade is a “scam,” wants to devalue the dollar, end the war on drugs, get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and cut the military budget in half.

Bothwell holds at least a few positions that may well be outside the mainstream among his would-be constituents. He wants to increase taxes on the wealthy.

“I’m not afraid to talk about raising taxes,” Bothwell said.

Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, described the 11th district as “fiercely competitive” in a general election but said Bothwell has a “difficult climb” in a primary.

“Whether Democrats or Republicans, the mountain folks are fiercely independent. … Shuler succeeded by capturing the cultural conservatism, the ambience of the area,” Guillory said. “A lot of his success has been that he looks independent.”

Shuler raised $140,000 in the first quarter and had $144,000 in cash on hand, according to his FEC filing.