(Full disclosure: I’m consulting on the McNeill campaign now and worked with Larry Kissell in 2006.)
After Labor Day in 2006, North Carolina’s last Blue Moon election, a Democratic wave was forming across the nation. While the economy was relatively strong, the war in Iraq seemed to drag on forever and scandals rocked the Republican majority in Congress. Voters wanted change. The generic ballot in September gave Democrats a 6.5% advantage.
In their rush to take back Congress, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee overlooked one North Carolina race. In NC-08, a school teacher named Larry Kissell from Montgomery County was taking on incumbent Republican Robin Hayes, an heir to the Canon textile fortune. Hayes had a stout war chest and eight years of incumbency. Kissell struggled to raise money but was otherwise a good fit for the rural district.
Kissell and his campaign knew they couldn’t compete with Hayes’ money, so they localized the race. Kissell ran a folksy campaign connecting with local leaders and working through existing networks to build an organization of their own. Despite their efforts, they couldn’t get the attention of the DCCC or the national political establishment—or the North Carolina establishment for that matter.
When the votes were counted, Kissell lost to Hayes by 329 votes out of more than 120,000 cast, the closest race in the nation. Hayes had outspent Kissell by more 3 to 1. DCCC Chair Rahm Emmanuel privately called it his biggest mistake of the cycle. Two years later, Kissell won the seat with broad support.
This year, Frank McNeill is running a similar campaign against incumbent Republican Richard Hudson. Hudson is flush with special interest cash while McNeill is building a substantial grassroots organization linking the local candidates and leaders. McNeill is of the district, having been raised in Moore County and served extensively in local government and civic organizations. Hudson is of Washington, a former Congressional Chief of Staff who only moved to the district when it was gerrymandered to unseat Kissell.
The contrast between the two candidates couldn’t be broader. Hudson served as Hayes’ district manager and then moved to Washington, registering to vote in Virginia. After the GOP took control of the legislature and redrew district lines to favor a Republican, Hudson rented a house in the district, left his Capitol Hill job, set up a shell company registered in Concord and switched his voter registration to North Carolina.
Like 2006, 2018 is a Blue Moon election in North Carolina. And like 2006, a Democratic wave seems to be building. The generic Congressional ballot stands at 9.5%, three points more than in 2006. The current administration is consumed with scandals. And while we aren’t in a heated war like Iraq, the Trumpers seem to be getting rolled by the likes of Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin and Syria appears ready to flare up again.
Like Robin Hayes, Hudson’s launching an air war, underwritten by special interests and deep-pocketed donors. Like Kissell, McNeill is building an army, manned by the men and women who live in the Eighth Congressional District. In a low-turnout election in the midst of the Democratic wave, McNeill’s strategy might carry him through. In fact, it may be the only strategy that can win for Democrats in a district like that one.