After the 2010 census, when changes in population and demographics prompted the state’s legislature to lay out new electoral boundaries, the state’s 7th Congressional District took on a new, Republican-voting county and a candidate who in 2012 came just a matchstick’s length from unseating the district’s long-serving Democrat, Rep. Mike McIntyre.
Now, McIntyre’s retirement after nine terms has the GOP more hopeful than ever of capturing the district, and with the same candidate as before: David Rouzer of Johnston County.
The former state senator, however, has two Wilmington-based contenders: Democrat Jonathan Barfield, a real-estate agent who has served on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners since 2009, and Libertarian Wesley Casteen, a lawyer and certified public accountant.
If Rouzer can clinch victory, he would be the first Republican congressman for southeastern North Carolina since Brunswick County’s Daniel Russell, who served 1879-1881.
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The N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, a political research organization that tracks candidates, considers the district’s current voting behavior right-leaning. But Rouzer’s opponents tout strong chances.
“The reality is the numbers are still in our favor,” Barfield said in an interview. “The district is still very much a Democratic district. I believe we have a better than good chance of winning this race.”
The 7th District – made up of parts or all of Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Cumberland, Duplin, Hoke, Johnston, Lenoir, New Hanover, Pender, Robeson and Sampson counties – is 39 percent Democratic, 33 percent Republican, 27 percent unaffiliated and less than 1 percent Libertarian, according to the State Board of Elections.
Casteen said his chance comes from the public’s frustration with the major parties, and that his Libertarian message is welcomed not only by that party’s small base but by mainstream voters as well.
“You’ve got a third of the electorate that’s unaffiliated. You’ve got 80 percent-plus of the country that’s dissatisfied with Congress,” Casteen said.
Rouzer holds a strong cash advantage that will allow him to build on his name recognition from his time in the state Senate and his run in 2012.
His second-quarter financial report with the State Board of Elections showed more than $90,000 in the bank, compared with Barfield’s $5,900 and Casteen’s $3,200.
Rouzer said he planned to run new TV ads this month.
“I think my background and my message in getting back to the basics, and the founding principles that made the country great resonate more and more with folks,” Rouzer said. “And then of course the threats that we’re dealing with overseas certainly help to put things in perspective too.”
Rouzer said he wants a “simple, straightforward foreign policy that ... basically lets everybody around the world know that we stand for what’s right and that when we act, we’re to act decisively and that we mean what we say and say what we mean.”
Other focuses of his campaign include fighting regulations that he views as burdensome on entrepreneurs and business owners, as well as boosting the country’s military and intelligence capabilities and simplifying the tax code.
“Ideally, I’d love to have a flat tax, but I’d support anything that simplified it, flattened out the rates and made it fairer across the board,” he said.
Stoutly against the Affordable Care Act, Rouzer has said he’d prefer to bring health care costs down by allowing people to buy insurance across state lines and establish non-taxed accounts in which people could save money for medical care.
Being from Johnston County and having an agricultural history on his resume – he worked on a family farm in his youth and with farming and tobacco clients later – Rouzer has had to impress upon the 7th District’s three coastal counties that he understands the economics of inlet maintenance and beach nourishment.
That’s been a strong political point for McIntyre, who has argued for federal money for beach nourishment. Rouzer, noting the beaches were a critical component of the region’s economy, said, “It’s something that I’m going to be focused on.”
Barfield, who grew up with the beaches of New Hanover County and has dealt with related funding issues as a county commissioner, said federal dollars must continue to flow to beach projects. They typically cost millions of dollars each to protect property and infrastructure.
But he said he’s also in tune with the district’s agricultural economics.
“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry, when you put it all together, in our state,” Barfield said. “I want to work hard to make sure that our farmers have the right subsidies that they need to maintain … for years to come, providing food not only for those of us who are here, but also to make sure that they are able to export their goods to other countries.”
As for the Affordable Care Act, Barfield said it needs another look as it concerns potential burdens on small business. “But, at the same time, I recognize the needs of individuals to access affordable health care,” he said. Barfield has served on the New Hanover Regional Medical Center board of trustees since late 2010 and said that the Wilmington hospital writes off more than $40 million a year in indigent care alone. “So someone is already paying for it.”
Casteen said the economy tops his list of concerns. He said deficit spending is in the cards for decades, and he noted the national debt has already surpassed $17.5 trillion.
“That’s money that can’t be spent on roads, it can’t be spent on education, it can’t be spent on things that we all acknowledge that government should be doing,” he said. “But nobody wants to touch the main areas of the budget,” which he listed as debt, debt interest, Social Security and Medicare. They shouldn’t be off-limits, he said.
Asked about the federal role in beach nourishment, which officials like Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn have decried as pork spending, Casteen said he envisioned a future of local responsibility.
“The federal government has fostered a dependency with the (coastal) communities, pretty much allowing them to think that beach renourishment was something that was open-ended,” he said. He cited Carolina Beach’s ongoing federal aid for sand as an example.
The town had an agreement with the federal government for 50 years’ worth of beach project help, covering a maximum of 65 percent of the nourishments’ costs.
That 50-year aid agreement would have expired this year, but a bill Congress passed in May set up a three-year extension and the possibility of another 15 years of funding. Other beach towns timing out in the near future are afforded the same. Carolina Beach celebrated.
But Casteen said he wants to see beach towns weaned off of the funding.
Casteen said he’s fiscally conservative but believes government shouldn’t impose on a number of social issues, such as same-sex marriage. And while he said he opposed North Carolina’s passage of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, he said state and local governments should be more active than the federal government with policy that affects everyday lives.
“I believe that it’s difficult for the federal government, if not impossible,” he said, “to set priorities for more than 315 million citizens simultaneously.”
Benjamin Brown writes for NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer.