CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — In a bitterly contested race, Democratic U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell is trying to hang on to his seat in a conservative North Carolina district that has been redrawn to favor Republicans.
His opponent, Republican Richard Hudson, has been on the attack for months, trying to tie Kissell to President Barack Obama. Hudson says Kissell has supported administration's policies, contributing to a weak economic recovery.
"He's done a very good job of coming home and talking about one or two of his votes," Hudson said. "But for his first three years in Congress, he's voted 90-plus percent for Barack Obama. He actually has a very liberal voting record."
Kissell says that's nonsense — that he's bucked the White House on a number of issues. Kissell didn't even attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this summer — even though a small part of his district is in the city.
"I stand on my record of independence," Kissell said.
With less than two weeks before the election, the 8th District race is not only contentious, but expensive. Campaign finance reports show both men have each raised about $1.2 million.
Kissell, 61, a former textile worker and high school history teacher, is seeking his third two-year term. He was first elected in 2008, unseating Republican Robin Hayes, the grandson of textile magnate Charles Cannon. Kissell failed in his first bid to defeat Hayes in 2006.
But that was a different 8th District.
The new district was redrawn after the GOP took control of the state legislature in the 2010 election and includes more traditionally Republican areas and some of the state's fastest growing counties, mostly on the outskirts of Charlotte. But it also still contains predominantly rural counties with some of the highest unemployment rates in North Carolina. That's due in part to the shuttering of textile plants, once a critical part of the state's economy.
The redrawn district includes a sliver of Mecklenburg County and takes in all or parts of the counties of Cabarrus, Union, Randolph, Rowan, Davidson, Stanly, Anson, Montgomery, Richmond, Scotland and Robeson.
J. Michael Bitzer, a political historian at Catawba College, said the newly redrawn district will benefit Republicans. With the new boundaries, 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain would have carried the district with 57 percent of the vote.
Bitzer says many of the Democrats in the new areas are older, conservative and tend to vote Republican.
"Kissell has not had the opportunity to do constituency case work on their behalf," Bitzer said. "And that's a powerful pull. If voters know their congressman is working for them, they will give the incumbent the benefit of the doubt."
Still, Kissell says he's optimistic about his chances. He notes that he has proven the pundits wrong before. Kissell withstood a GOP surge in 2010 that erased a Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
His challenge is to show his old constituents that he's still in touch with their problems while reaching out to new constituents in more affluent areas.
After traveling around the district, Kissell says the new constituents are just like the old ones: "They want the same opportunities. They want the emphasis back on American jobs. So that part is no different."
Kissell is a moderate to conservative Democrat who voted against Obama's health care overhaul and his cap-and-trade bill to reduce global warming.
He talks with pride about his amendment requiring the federal Department of Homeland Security to buy textiles made entirely in America.
Hudson, 41, is a conservative Republican who beat a crowded field in the GOP primary. He has worked on the campaigns of several GOP congressional candidates, including Hayes.
If elected, Hudson says he would work to repeal the health care overhaul and reduce the size of the federal government. He also said the budget deficit is a major threat to the economy, and wants to do away with government regulations that hurt efforts to create jobs.
And he says he is frustrated with Kissell, saying he talks like a conservative at home, but acts differently in Washington.
He ticked off a string of Kissell votes, including supporting Obama's economic stimulus package in 2009, which Hudson says didn't create new jobs and increased the deficit. He also accused Kissell of being pro-union.
"There's no job creation anywhere right now. This country has been down before. We've had recessions. But this has been the longest, flattest recovery in the history of the country. And it's because of federal government policies that Larry Kissell supported — the policies of Barack Obama. It's created so much uncertainty," he said.
Encouraging economic development is critical, Hudson said. So is reforming Social Security and Medicare.
Hudson says he's interested in offering people age 40 and younger options to receive traditional Medicare when they're older or to buy private health insurance. Kissell said it was important to keep promises for Medicare and Social Security and he is worried about talk of privatization and vouchers.
Meanwhile, Hudson's campaign has attracted the support of national GOP leaders. On a recent day, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum stumped for Hudson.
"I'm going to have a lot of Democrats voting for me," Hudson said. "While they may disagree with me on the issues, at least they know where I stand. They at least trust that my position is based on principle not political expediency."