If Democratic Congressman Mike McIntyre, who is running for re-election against state Sen. David Rouzer, looks a little shell shocked these days, theres a reason. His political fortunes were altered sharply when the new Republican majority in the state legislature dramatically redrew congressional districts.
The resulting 7th District is a far more Republican-tilting chunk of the state that stretches from Johnston County in the Triangle to Brunswick County on the southeast coast, eliminating some of the Democratic strongholds that helped keep him in Congress for the past 16 years.
That, in turn, has made him a target of a national GOP effort to unseat vulnerable Democrats. And that has opened the spigots to huge amounts of campaign money from conservative super PACs and other independent-expenditure groups buying TV ads and other campaign material.
By the end of September, Politico reported it was the fifth most expensive House race in the country. Three weeks into October, outside political groups have spent more than $5 million on the candidates, 70 percent of that benefiting Rouzer.
Most of the Rouzer money has gone to redefine McIntyre as a Washington liberal, even though he is among the conservative to moderate Democrats known as blue dogs. It has forced McIntyre to try to outflank his Republican opponent on the right, as he stresses his record as an independent.
This is a battleground for keeping control of the House, said N.C. State University political science professor Andy Taylor. The Republicans believe they can pick up four seats in North Carolina.
With incumbents leaving office in the 13th and 11th districts, McIntyre and Rep. Larry Kissell in the 8th District have been targeted by Republicans. The campaigns are attracting money. And McIntyre is in a part of the state that voted for John McCain in 2008.
Thats why you have this heated battle, Taylor said. It all points to a very close race.
Where Rouzer stands
Rouzer, 40, is a second-term state senator who was a one-time aide to Sen. Jesse Helms. As the senator from Johnston and Wayne counties, Rouzer has had to spend a lot of time introducing himself along the coastal counties. Even with the benefit of outside political groups, Rouzer says its a challenge to beat an incumbent like McIntyre.
Hes probably one of the toughest Democrats to run against in the country, Rouzer said by phone from Wilmington this week. Congressman McIntyre has been in office 16 years. People know who he is. That is both an advantage and a disadvantage in some ways.
Its an advantage in that a lot of people want to make a change. The disadvantage is they havent known me that long. I think I proved in the primary I could come into New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties and I could peel off votes.
Rouzer says one of McIntyres advantages as an incumbent is he is getting just a ton of PAC money. The majority of my money is from individuals the last I looked, 74 percent. More than half of his money was from special-interest groups.
Thats true, although counting the super PACs and related groups such as the Congressional Leadership Funds $575,000 ad buy this week, and the $1.5 million in ads and mailers from the Young Guns Action and Young Guns Network tips the scales in Rouzers favor. Rouzers own campaign is running low: At the end of September it had only $92,000 on hand and was $75,000 in debt.
Were going to have the resources we need to win this race, he said.
The campaign against McIntyre paints the incumbent as part of an unholy trio with President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The narrative is that he acts one way in North Carolina but is a different person in Washington.
McIntyre has been forced to emphasize his conservative credentials, even moving to the right of Rouzer by accusing him of lobbying Congress to bring illegal immigrants to North Carolina, and of lobbying for a foreign country. Rouzer supported a guest-worker program to help the states farmers. He also had lobbied to export U.S. tobacco to Japan.
Thats a distinct sign that they are in desperation mode in this campaign, Rouzer said this week. They are throwing in everything plus the kitchen sink plus a little bit more.
Rouzer did not have a high profile in the General Assembly until this past session, when he became chairman of the Joint Regulatory Reform Committee that shepherded through a slew of regulation-reducing changes to state law, especially environmental regulations. Rouzer said he worked across the aisle to get the Regulatory Reform Act passed and to override the governors veto of it.
This election is about jobs and the economy, and its also about the future of this country, Rouzer said.
If elected, he says he would focus on federal tax code reform, cutting government spending, and repealing the Affordable Care Act, among other issues.
Where McIntyre stands
McIntyre, 56, points to a slew of endorsements he has received, including from national groups representing business, right-to-life, religious and gun-rights interests. He says three-fourths of the mayors in his district support him because of his record on rural development and other issues.
They know what Ive done in Washington, McIntyre said by phone from Smithfield on Thursday. I am voting from the conservative side of the spectrum. Im the most conservative House Democrat thats running for re-election.
The other thread running in the narrative against McIntyre is that he has been ineffective. Rouzers campaign says in 16 years he hasnt been the primary sponsor on a single bill that became law. McIntyre dismisses the label as mostly inconsequential.
Let me tell you something: Its not about being a bean-counter, how many bills that you personally sponsored, or whether youre a co-sponsored or primary sponsor, original sponsor, any of those terms. Its about being effective.
McIntyre lists as accomplishments projects he has helped bring to the state: facilities for Ft. Bragg, beach renourishment and inlets projects, town halls, fire departments, hospitals. He said he has quadrupled the number of veterans health clinics in the district, including a super regional center on the coast being built now.
McIntyre considers himself to be the underdog, not only because hes losing the money race but mainly because of redistricting.
This district was drawn in a vicious way just to advance the political career of my opponent, he said.
Not only did GOP mapmakers put Rouzers home county into the district, they removed McIntyres hometown of Lumberton, took downtown Wilmington and the university out and put it into a district that runs to the Virginia line, and carved up Robeson County in general.
McIntyre says if he loses, the state loses important influence. If he wins, he will move to the No. 3 position on the House Armed Services Committee and No. 2 on the House Agriculture Committee, both dealing with matters important to North Carolinas economy.
My opponent cant just say, Oh, Ill go take his place, McIntyre said. That just doesnt happen. We will go to dead last in those committees. This goes way beyond personalities and partisan labels. It becomes an issue of whats best for North Carolina.