Is Red a Primary Color?


Ever since August, when we all got an earful of what Heath Shuler thought about health care reform (he was pretty much against any proposed Democratic legislation, and had so few concrete suggestions for what he would support you kind of got the impression that reform wasn’t high on his “to do” list), I have been wondering: does Shuler deserve a primary challenge?

I can’t believe I’m the only progressive to think along these lines. (And if Shuler votes against the House health care bill tomorrow, I’m sure quite a few more will join our ranks.) But I’m guessing we’ve all faced the reality of the situation – that Shuler would win the primary, and that he’s almost certain to retain the seat for the Democrats next November. If that’s the case, then is there anything to be gained by a sacrificial lamb challenging Shuler from the left in a primary? Would such a challenge accomplish anything that could not be accomplished by other means?

What I’m really asking is this: given that Shuler’s progressive constituents probably want him to vote more often with the majority of the Democratic caucus, would a primary challenge help or hinder the other means at their disposal to influence his vote?

Here’s what I’ve come up with – some arguments for a primary, some arguments against, and some questions that I continue to grapple with. I’d like to throw them out to see what you Hooligans think.

Reasons to mount a primary challenge:

1. It could lay out a progressive agenda. Progressives in Congress are getting better at defining their policy aims. Even the most active Democrats in WNC might not be aware of these positions, but a candidate who advocated for them would help spread the word.

2. It would give many the chance to register a protest-something other than phone calls, faxes, and petitions. Over the past year I’ve learned that Heath Shuler doesn’t see why employers should bear responsibility for insuring their workers, can’t understand why helping state governments through hard times counts as stimulus, and feels that health care consumers should go without a government-run public option while drug companies freely choose which government program pays for their products. For that reason I would love to have the opportunity to vote for someone else for Congress. I’m guessing that thousands of other Democrats in the 11th district might feel the same, especially if they knew that their vote wouldn’t swing the district toward the Republicans.

3. It would put our district on the national radar. Some have suggested that Shuler might run for another office someday; if that’s the case, whether or not this year’s sacrificial lamb runs again, national progressive groups like DFA, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Accountability Now might view a credible challenge as a good reason to recruit an even stronger candidate to seek an open seat.

4. It would build infrastructure. A progressive running would give progressives throughout the district an opportunity to meet and work together toward a common goal. And a progressive running as a progressive would give her staff valuable experience in messaging, fundraising, and organizing — experience that they could then use in other progressive campaigns here and elsewhere.

5. It would put a face on the district’s progressives, and give them a single voice. And if the progressive candidate had an impressive showing, this could be a significant benefit.

6. It could blunt the power of the Blue Dogs. Money and time spent campaigning in a primary could prevent Heath Shuler from fundraising and campaigning for his colleagues across the country, eroding the unity that have made the Blue Dogs such a potent force in Congress.

7. The progressive might win. Accidents happen. And if 2010 turns out to be a bad year for incumbents, having a fresh face on the ballot might be a plus.

Reasons not to mount a primary challenge:

1. The Rule of 51. If whoever runs does not mount a serious threat, or get much in the way of votes, the natural inclination of Shuler, his staff and his supporters will be to regard their opponent’s vote total as the total number of those across the district who support progressive policies. This might make him less inclined to listen to his liberal constituents. In fact, given the bubble that some in DC manage to create around themselves, Shuler might not get the message unless he loses outright.

2. Hurt feelings. One hopes that Shuler’s got a thick skin, but at the same time there’s the risk he might dismiss progressives out of sheer pique. Nor is it only Shuler’s feelings that are likely to be hurt: many Democratic Party officers and elected officials will regard a primary as a supreme act of disloyalty, making them more likely to dismiss progressives as well.

3. Divided progressives. In order to avoid problems 1 and 2, self-identified progressives in the party and in office might feel obliged to distance themselves from the primary challenger, simply in order to preserve their relationship with the district’s Democratic Congressman.

4. The progressive might win. To keep the seat for the Democrats, the candidate would then have to run one hell of a campaign. And he’d have to be running against a weak Republican candidate. And he’d need support from the national Democratic Party, which would not be a given for an underdog. If pigs fly and the progressive wins the primary, the district would almost certainly turn red.


1. Could a credible candidate be found? And by credible I mean a candidate who deserves credit – volunteer hours and contributions – and who will be a credit to the district’s progressives. Any hint that the candidate is disreputable or a crank would make his candidacy worse than useless.

2. Is Shuler bad enough for a primary? Shuler has one of the lowest Progressive Punch scores for any Democratic representative. At the same time, however, he enjoys a considerable amount of respect from the local environmental community, and he’s given credit as a congressperson who works hard for his district.

I see a primary as constituent lobbying by other means — the equivalent of whacking a mule with a 2×4 to get his attention — not as a way of putting Shuler out of office. But there are a number of different ways of influencing a member of congress, and some of them — the ones that require activists to build personal relationships with their congressperson and his staff — could be made more difficult if a prominent, credible Democrat calling herself a progressive were to force a primary.

So what do you think, Hooligans? Is it worth it? And who would count as a credible candidate?


  1. RHS says:

    Sometimes you take what you can get and WNC is NOT Vermont — we aren’t going to elect Bernie Sanders Have we already fogoten that WNC sent Charles Taylor to Washington for 16 years? Progressives need to take a day off from Malaprops and Montford and take a look around the rest of the 11th Congressional district. You don’t even have to take the two hour drive to get to Hayesville or Murphy, just bop down to Henderson County and you’ll find yourself in a very different world.

    For all the frustrations one may have for Shuler’s Blue Dog status he is a good fit for the 11th as a whole and let us not forget the heat Shuler has taken from the right for his support of the energy bill and cap and trade. Remember, the 11th voted for John McCain, and while Obama ran strongly in Madison, Haywood, Yancey and Swain he still lost the 11th winning only Buncombe and Jackson counties which is not enough of a base

    Sorry, but for me it all comes down to preferring a 50% ally (and here we’re even probably talking a 75% ally) to a 100% opponent. As you say with a progressive as the Democratic nominee the district will almost certainly turn red and what does that accomplish?

  2. Doug Gibson says:


    My question is whether we could influence Shuler’s behavior in office through a primary, not whether or not a progressive could beat him in a primary, which I don’t think is likely.

    And my objection to what he’s done in office is not necessarily his votes, but what he’s spending his energy on when he’s not on the floor. Does the world need the SAVE Act? Does the world need to be made safe for drug companies to charge Medicare rates for drugs dispensed via Medicaid?

    I guess I refuse to believe that our choices are either a Democrat who often works behind the scenes to favor corporations, or a Republican beholden to the Tea Party crowd. Since the only realistic alternative I can see is to change Shuler’s modus operandi, I’m wondering whether a primary challenge would help that effort.

  3. Paul -V- says:

    … or the progressive base could start working for a Green candidate, instead of blindly voting for a D.

    And let me save Dem-bots the trouble:

    blah blah blah …. voting your conscience is a vote for a scary Republican. Blah blah blah

  4. shadmarsh says:

    Shuler is a douche.

  5. Doug Gibson says:


    Green in the general, progressive in the primary, the results would likely be the same. And I honestly think that a primary progressive challenger would get more votes and more support – especially national support – than a “Green” candidate in the general.

  6. You lost your opportunity to influence Heath Shuler’s behavior by not challenging him in 2008. I think a progressive could have won the general election last year because our candidate was extraordinarily weak. He ran a brilliant primary, but seemed to lose his way in the general…it was like the pilot house was empty, and nobody was guiding the ship in a useful direction. He spent most of his time attacking district Republicans while Shuler courted them.

    It would be extremely unwise for a progressive to challenge him this cycle. I believe that if they did win the primary (against Shuler’s millions, I think it unlikely), they would be slaughtered by an energized Republican Party.

    Shuler is going to face a hard test in 2010. If he votes for “Universal Healthcare”, he will be vulnerable. If he votes against it, he can use that to split the vote in his favor.

    After all…are progressives really going to stay at home when a real conservative could take the seat from him? I think not.

    I think we stand a chance to beat Shuler this time, if the “circular firing squad Republicans” can keep their mouths shut.

    If you guys really wanted to convince Shuler their were more of you than us in the district, and win a public relations victory…mount counter-demonstrations every time the Tea Party shows up to influence Shuler. If your numbers are consistently greater, then you will have made your point…and the Tea Party types may stop showing up if they know they’ll be outnumbered. Or, if you are afraid of potential confrontations, show up the day after, or the day before.

    Advice than that can be obtained with a $400 per day retainer fee. 🙂
    Long term rates are negotiable.

  7. DPD says:

    I think you would be surprised how many progressives are in the 11th.
    Let’s get rid of him.

  8. RHS says:

    I’m not sure I see how a primary challenge would have a lot of influence on Shuler’s behavior unless he thought that such a challenge was a genuine threat to his renomination.

    We all knew in 2006 that Shuler was not going to be with us on some issues, yet the imperative that we rid ourselves of Charles Taylor led us to support him and on a number of issues Shuler has been a big improvement over Taylor. Again, a 50% ally is better than a 100% opponent.

    In a perfect world Patsy Keever would have defeated taylor in 2004 and we could all be basking in the glory of her third term with a prospect for a long Congressional career. But truth be told Patsy Keever, was “too liberal” for the 11th Congressional District. I adore Patsy Keever and Holly Jones but I don’t for a minute think they would stand a chance even against the most hapless of Republicans in the 11th CD.

    The answer? Well, that’s a tough one, but replacing Shuler with a Republican will do absolutely nothing to further any of the causes progressives care about and I say that as a person who does take great issues with some of Shuler’s stances, most notably immigration.

  9. EBNC says:

    @Bobby: um, yeah. What you said.

    @Paul: if the Greens can come up with a candidate worth half a shit, I’ll gladly vote for him or her. The same goes for any other local party. Bring someone worth dancing with, and maybe I’ll ask. But, yeah, good luck with that.

    @Doug: To your concern re: divided progressives – they’re already divided. The only ones worried about ruining their relationships with the Congressman are the ones with money – and they’re probably only cynically supporting progressivism in an effort to preserve the view from their downtown loft decks. True progressives (not to mention liberals and conservatives) don’t give a crap about who’s toes they step on. If someone wants to run against Shuler, what’s stopping them?

  10. Michael Muller says:

    I agree with Bobby 100% — especially the part about the congressional candidate running a brilliant Republican primary 😉


  11. Doug Gibson says:

    I see a primary as something to do in addition to all the other possibilities – including counter-demonstrations against the tea party folks. I have to say, though, that given the work that’s been done on health care reform by the local OFA people, I’m not sure what more citizen lobbying can accomplish in terms of changing Shuler’s mind.

    As for having squandered an opportunity in 2008, I doubt that a progressive could have won then, especially since a lot of dissatisfaction with Shuler has arisen this year as we’ve watched him and the Blue Dogs operate with a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House. In 2008, most progressives were still in the “better to work with him than against him” mindset, and they were also expecting him to move toward the Democratic mainstream as he became more secure in his seat.

    Another thing we have now that we didn’t have then were a number of national progressive groups – and the national netroots – who have begun to move from working for “more Democrats” to working for “better Democrats.”

    Finally, I’d imagine that there are a number of progressives and other Democratic base voters who will simply stay home on Election Day next year, if the turnout in Virgina is any indication. A fired-up base is not a given for Shuler by any means, no matter how endangered he might seem.

  12. Steve in NC says:

    Presuming any primary challenge, if there is one, loses, the questions for progessives might be these ones, especially with no Gordon to vote for and likely low voter interest:

    Would I see any difference if Shuler lost to the GOP? Might his losing present an opportunity to vote for someone better in 2012? Should I just stay home?

    Could someone post reminders of anything Shuler has done/might do that progressives might appreciate?

  13. Doug Gibson says:


    Yeah, my calculus is that it isn’t a question of “no Heath Shuler = one less Blue Dog.” It’s “no Heath Shuler = one less Democrat.” And again, I think that a number of progressives – particularly environmentalists – who have been working behind the scenes would see a difference if they had to lobby a Republican, unless it was maybe Charles Thomas.

  14. haywood says:

    So glad y’all are discussing this. I have been looking around for the last year and the problem is there is no one willing or able to run against the guy. He has too much money, and the only people passionate enough to go against that money, the local Democrats would be embarrassed to support. They need someone to run against him who has a cute family, some religion and a family name.

    A lot of old-timers west of Balsam are mad as hell at Shuler right now over health care and I think this would be an opportune time to shake him up and give the national party confidence that they could field a candidate for the next election down the road to bump him. The energy from the grassroots is still there to tap into from last year, and most importantly, Shuler himself is showing signs of being stressed out.

    He has had outbursts of anger in meetings with folks who have known him for years over health care that have given serious doubt to his regular Joe supporters, even expressing doubt in why he is doing his job in the first place. I mean, wouldn’t you–if you had that much money, and small children, a nice wife and plenty of hobbies, you wouldn’t really need to be in Congress.

    So the real problem is, finding a candidate who would run against him.