In Congress, Democrat Kissell is stuck in the middle

Franco Ordonez

The Republicans have worked hard to paint Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell as an incompetent congressman who is best friends with a left-wing president and responsible for lost jobs in his rural North Carolina district.

The reality of Kissell’s work in Congress is a lot more complicated.

Kissell, of Biscoe, N.C., has one of the most conservative records among House Democrats and bucked his party enough that some feel he might as well hop over the aisle.

The former social studies teacher has never had it easy running in the South, where white conservative Democrats have become an endangered species. His challenge is exponentially tougher this year as he runs for reelection in a newly redrawn district that includes thousands of new Republican voters who know little of his conservative credentials, such as an endorsement by the National Rifle Association.

The situation has given an opportunity to his challenger, Richard Hudson of Concord, N.C., a former Capitol Hill chief of staff for Reps. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., John Carter, R-Texas, and Mike Conaway, R-Texas. Hudson is working to depict Kissell’s record in a liberal light and to tie him to the policies of President Barack Obama.

About 40 minutes into candidates’ hour-long debate at Wingate University in September, Hudson accused Kissell of lying about his opposition to Obama’s healthcare policy.

“The congressman says he voted against the Affordable Care Act every time, but the fact of the matter, Congressman, you voted 23 times to support it or to oppose partially defunding Obamacare,” Hudson said.

Kissell voted against the health care law, but he didn’t support early attempts to repeal it. He did vote this year to repeal the measure when it was clear that he would have to run in a more conservative district.

Hudson’s list of 23 votes includes those against repeal of the law as well as other votes on an array of amendments and budget resolutions that involved pieces of the policy.

Kissell’s office calls the accusations a distortion.

“Setting the record straight on Obamacare, there have been three votes on passage of Obamacare in the House, all during the 111th Congress,” said Christopher Schuler, Kissell’s spokesman. “Larry Kissell voted no every single time.”

Schuler touts Kissell for taking on both parties by opposing Obamacare and standing up to the “reckless budget plans that Hudson has embraced.”

This summer, Kissell supported House Republicans who championed their jobs bill, the Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act, which would limit government regulations for businesses until the unemployment rate falls to 6 percent, Schuler said.

Kissell voted with Democrats about 72 percent of the time over the past two years, but on key votes he often sides with Republicans. He was one of just 17 Democrats who voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt of Congress. He voted with Republicans to audit the Federal Reserve system and to extend provisions of the Patriot Act. And this election season, he declined to endorse Obama and skilled his party’s political convention, which was held within 15 miles of his district’s borders.

He had a less conservative voting record in his first term. He supported Obama’s positions 89 percent of the time in 2009 and 81 percent in 2010, according to Congressional Quarterly. He voted with Democrats on the stimulus bill and opposed an amendment that would prohibit federal money for health plans that include abortion coverage. He supported the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the provision that kept gays in the military silent about their orientation.

It doesn’t help Kissell that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raises money for House candidates, has pulled $1.1 million of planned TV ads targeting Hudson. The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, has spent $900,000 in the Charlotte, N.C., TV market on tough ads linking Kissell to Obama.

Hudson’s campaign charged Kissell with trying to distort his own four-year record. The bottom line is that Kissell has a 17 percent conservative voting record and 100 percent pro-abortion rights rating, said Hudson communications director Anna Haberlein, citing political scorecards of Heritage Action and an abortion-rights group, NARAL Pro Choice.

“He is cherry-picking certain votes – votes he made after learning his district would be more conservative – but his overall record has been consistently aligned with the Obama agenda,” Haberlein said.

Kissell did vote with Republicans in his first term. In 2009, Kissell voted against the cap-and-trade bill designed to reduce global warming. His votes against the health care bill led one pro-health care group to run ads charging him with “betrayal.”

“He’s got Democrats angry at him for not being enough of a team player,” said Ferrel Guillory, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political analyst. “And now he’s got Republicans hitting him for the support that he did give Obama... They’re doing the political equivalent of guilt by association.”

By Franco Ordonez
McClatchy Newspapers