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Hunt for Challenger to Beat Shuler May Finally End in 2012

Republicans were unable to recruit a well-known challenger to Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) last cycle.

But that is not likely to be the case in 2012, after a proposed Congressional map released last week indicated the western 11th district will become substantially more favorable to the GOP.

At least four Republicans are eyeing the race against Shuler, who is reportedly in the mix to become the next athletic director at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. After that local report spread last week, Shuler’s spokesman said the three-term Congressman and former NFL quarterback is running for re-election.

Jeff Hunt, the district attorney for Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties, is considered the strongest candidate at this early point by key Republican operatives.

In a short interview, Hunt said he is “taking a long, hard look” at a run.

“I’m crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s and I think I’ll probably end up doing it,” the five-term DA told Roll Call.

Another candidate who will declare soon is Spence Campbell, a retired Army colonel who ran in the 11th in 2008 and came in second in the GOP primary. Since then, Campbell has been involved in philanthropic work, said his campaign manager, Mark Williams.

“Spence Campbell will announce he is running for Congress … on Thursday, July 14,” Williams wrote in a press release Wednesday.

The western North Carolina district would go from one that leans Republican to one of the most Republican districts in the state under the map unveiled last week by the GOP-controlled state Legislature. By losing portions of liberal Asheville and gaining GOP-leaning counties formerly in another district, the draft map substantially weakens Democratic prospects of holding the seat in 2012.

“This is the partisan and politically gerrymandered map we expected,” Shuler spokesman Andrew Whalen said in a statement. “It does nothing to move our nation forward, but rather continues to divide us.”

State Republicans hope to pass a new Congressional map into law within the month. North Carolina law does not give Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue the ability to veto new legislative lines. However, under the Voting Rights Act the new map must be approved by the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The only declared Republican in the race against Shuler so far is tea-party-aligned Dan Eichenbaum, an ophthalmologist who lost to businessman Jeff Miller in the 2010 GOP primary. Miller ended up taking 46 percent of the vote against Shuler last cycle.

Eichenbaum said he would echo the themes that animated his campaign last time.

“My platform was limited government, individual freedom, personal responsibility, fiscal restraint, free-market economy and it resonated very, very well,” he said. “We have a very active grass-roots movement in western North Carolina.”

Miller sounded unlikely to take another shot at the seat. He told Roll Call that he was focused on making sure his family’s dry-cleaning business stayed afloat in tough economic times.

“With the change in the district, I imagine people will come out of the woodwork” to run for the seat, Miller said. “Me personally, I’m not that all that excited about it. I’m more concerned with keeping everybody at work right here and making sure our business keeps going.”

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