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Race Rating Change: Heath Shuler’s Exit Makes Seat Likely Republican

At some point over the next nine months, Hayden Rogers, retiring Rep. Heath Shuler’s (D-N.C) former chief of staff, will probably drive by Mount Mitchell, about an hour outside Asheville.

At more than a mile high, it’s the tallest American peak east of the Mississippi River — and it should serve as a good reminder for Rogers of the steep uphill slog he faces as he attempts to keep the 11th district on the Democratic side of the ledger.

Shuler’s decision to retire at the end of the 112th Congress means that a nonincumbent Democrat will have to hew a path to victory in a district that would have only voted 40 percent for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election and will almost certainly vote in smaller numbers for the president’s re-election. Given the fact that this is now an open-seat race in a very conservative district, Roll Call is changing the rating of the 11th district race from Tossup to Likely Republican.

Democrats in the state believe that Rogers, who has served as Shuler’s closest adviser since the former football star came to Congress in January 2007, is the best candidate Democrats could have gotten for the race. He is expected to campaign on issues similar to those that helped the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Shuler win three terms in Congress.

“Hayden definitely has the profile that could fit that district,” North Carolina Democratic strategist Scott Falmlen said before Rogers’ announcement. “Nobody will outwork him.”

Hard work will be essential in a district that the Republican-controlled state Legislature drew to make exceedingly difficult for Democrats. The majority of liberal Asheville was chopped out and a handful of Republican counties were added to the 11th under the new lines.

Shuler said he would campaign hard for his former aide. In an interview with Roll Call, he said that Rogers would hit the ground running if he’s elected.

“Everyone will recognize that we’ve done an incredible job in this office, and we don’t need to slide backwards in the 11th district,” Shuler said. “If anyone can pick it up and continue it, where I have left off, it will be Hayden.

“Everyone else is going to be a step backwards because it’s going to take them at least two years to understand what they’re doing — it took me that long,” Shuler added. “It will not take Hayden that long.”

The Congressman also noted that Rogers would be strong on the issues that Shuler has focused on during his tenure. “Debt and deficit, he understands it,” Shuler said. “If we get our debt and deficit under control, then that creates jobs faster than anything else we can do.”

An early test of the seriousness of Rogers’ candidacy will be his first-quarter fundraising figures, which will be released in April. Another key benchmark will be his ability to build name identification in the district, which stretches over a wide swath of the western part of the Tar Heel State. But even when voters know who he is, Rogers will have to make sure the “D” after his name doesn’t immediately disqualify him in their minds.

There are four viable Republican candidates in the race: real estate investor Mark Meadows, local District Attorney Jeff Hunt, young businessman Ethan Wingfield and tea party-affiliated ophthalmologist Dan Eichenbaum. Meadows, who has recently picked up some key endorsements, including one from the 2010 GOP nominee, appears to have momentum three months before the May primary. But it remains a wide-open race.

Republicans are, not surprisingly, bullish on their chances in western North Carolina. “In the 11th, we have a wealth of strong Republican candidates,” state Republican Party spokesman Rob Lockwood said in a statement. “Heath Shuler recognized how popular these candidates were becoming and opted to not seek re-election on his own terms. Shuler has hand-picked his successor, but if he didn’t think he could win in the 11th , how can he honestly believe that his chief of staff can win?”

Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell is the only other Democrat in the race but is not seen as a serious contender. He had just $4,000 in cash on hand at the end of December.

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