Last fall, Democrat Tim Dunn appeared before a group of Mecklenburg County Democratic women. By several accounts, the meeting did not go well. Dunn's credentials -- a lieutenant colonel in the US Marine Corps Reserve; a veteran of two conflicts, Iraq and Kosovo; an attorney who helped build the case against Saddam Hussein -- were impressive, but many attendees were flummoxed by his answers on several women's issues.
He did not seem to know "anything" about the struggle to get emergency contraception available over the counter, complained progressive activist Tami Vogel. And his answers on abortion left many attendees that day thinking Dunn, whom national Democrats hope can unseat Republican Rep. Robin Hayes, opposes reproductive rights. "That put all of us off immediately," Vogel said.
Dunn later clarified his views in an e-mail that only left some recipients more confused: "From DAY ONE [his capital letters], I have been very clear that I support the rights of pregnant women as defined by the Supreme Court based on the constitution and the laws as they are written," Dunn wrote. "While I may have personal reservations about abortion for my own family; as a Congressman, I will support health care options for all women and children."
The damage was done, and it ironed at least one wrinkle into what national Democrats had hoped would be a slam-dunk primary: More liberals began looking to Larry Kissell, a former textile manager-turned-teacher, whom they could support enthusiastically.
The two candidates for the May 2 Democratic primary are running in a district that's attracting a lot of attention this year. The 8th Congressional District, which includes parts of north Mecklenburg County and stretches east to Cumberland County, is Democrat in voter registration but Republican in voting patterns. This year, however, Democrats hope frontrunner Dunn's veteran status, coupled with Hayes' 11th-hour turnaround vote in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), have left the seat up for grabs.
"It's one of the few [races] nationally that [Democrats] should be able to win -- if they get the Democrats to vote for the Democrats," noted Eric S. Heberlig, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In November 2004, more than 50 percent of the district's registered voters (more than 195,000 registrations) were Democrats, compared to about 118,000 registered Republicans. Another 72,000 voters weren't affiliated with either party.
Nevertheless, voters in the district tend to choose Republicans. Bush beat Kerry with 54 percent of the vote. And Hayes, a staunch conservative whose votes on free trade could've made a lesser politician a sitting duck in the district, hasn't had trouble winning four terms. Last time, he beat his Democratic challenger with 56 percent of the vote.
This time, however, Dunn and other military veterans have become the Democrats' greatest shot at retaking Congress in the midterm elections. Fresh from Iraq, these so-called "Fightin' Democrats" hope to counter the party's reputation, deserved or not, that it's soft on defense. Liberal blogs have hailed the Fightin' Democrats, who have garnered much national press. The most recent Atlantic Monthly describes Dunn thusly: "With his wrap-around sunglasses and hair cut high and tight, he looked as if he had just hopped off a tank." With only 26 percent of Congressmen and women with military records, such veteran status carries considerable cache.
Dunn, who has the support of former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland (a veteran who lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam and campaigned for Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid), said vets particularly understand what it means to authorize military action. "We do need to have more vets in Congress," said Dunn.
To be sure, Heberlig predicted, Dunn won't be alone in playing up his patriotism. Republican Hayes will emphasize his position on the Armed Services Committee and his support for the war, Heberlig said. "He's not going to leave that field to Mr. Dunn." Hayes also is a strong campaigner and fundraiser who's been able to mobilize heavy Republican turnout in Stanley and Cabarrus counties, Heberlig said.
If Democrats break into factions, it could help Hayes even more. Dunn seems to be the frontrunner, but Democrats in Mecklenburg have not solidified behind him yet. (Mecklenburg voters make up less than 20 percent of the district's voting rolls.)
Kissell, who like Dunn comes off as amiable and knowledgeable, has caught the eyes of the more progressive liberals. "You can't help but admire someone who has worked in the textile industry, changed careers and became a teacher because it felt like a good thing to do," Vogel said of Kissell. "He just really seemed to be hitting on all cylinders."
Two points of contention are Iraq and abortion. Neither candidate is calling for immediate withdrawal, nor will either use the word "timetable." But both criticize the Bush administration. Dunn wants goals set, and he wants troops pulled out as Iraqi forces are trained. "Staying the course is not a plan," Dunn said. "It's just a quote. It's just a slogan, and we need to have a clearly defined mission that can be given to our service men and women."
Kissell said definitive action in Iraq should be clear by year's end. "This is the year. Either we will see things turn our way with all the promises that the administration and our incumbent has been saying, or it will reach that point ... that eventually we become the problem," Kissell said.
On abortion, Kissell unequivocally believes the issue is a private matter. Though Dunn has been listed on one Web site as a "pro-life Democrat," he says he supports Roe v. Wade. "The current law and the protections that it provides and the options that it provides a pregnant woman need to stay in place," Dunn said. "I would not advocate limitation of it or advocate expansion of it."
Heberlig noted that Democrats in races such as the 8th District are caught in a catch-22. National advocacy groups that can provide needed support often prefer more liberal stances than the majority of voters. "So what might help that candidate in getting volunteers and getting donations in a primary are things that are unhelpful in a general election," Heberlig said.
"Obviously, they need the resources to get their message out to win, but they need to have a message that's going to appeal to those swing voters," he said. "Frankly, you know, taking liberal positions that make those groups happy, and losing the election, doesn't help whatsoever."