It was poignant that Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) announced his surprise retirement three days before Super Bowl Sunday. The onetime University of Tennessee football great and Washington Redskins quarterback explained that after three terms in the House, he would not run again in his Western North Carolina district.
At 40, Shuler explained, “I never intended to be a career politician.” For more than a year, he had made no secret of his desire to do something other than serve in Congress. Last year, he spent time flirting with the idea of becoming athletic director at his old alma mater UTENN. Two weeks ago, Shuler explored (and then ruled out) a run for governor after incumbent Democrat Bev Perdue said she was not retiring.
Now, in becoming the 20th Democrat to announce he is calling it quits this year, Shuler also becomes the latest case in point for Republicans retaining their majority in the House. Of the 20 Democratic-held seats that are now open, more than half are either competitive or leaning Republican. In striking contrast, all of the 14 Republican-held districts that are now open are considered “safe” GOP territory.
Without the charismatic quarterback-congressman running, the Tarheel State’s 11th District seems like a slam-dunk to return to the Republican representation it had for sixteen years before Shuler unseated Rep. Charles Taylor in 2006.
Even Shuler would have had trouble keeping the Tarheel State’s 11th District in Democratic hands. With redistricting actually making the 11th District more conservative than it was when Shuler won his present term in 2010, most political eyes will now be on the crowded Republican primary this May. Several candidates are already vying for nomination, with District Attorney Jeff Hunt and millionaire real estate investor Mark Meadows considered the front-runners. Also in the race is twenty-six year old Ethan Wingfield. Under state election law, candidates must get 40 percent of the vote-plus-one, or a run-off will be held between the two top vote-getters.
As to who will succeed Heath Shuler in the House, that is unclear now. But it seems a safe bet to say he or she will be a Republican—and an equally safe bet to say that he or she will come to a Republican-controlled House and take the oath of office from Speaker John Boehner next January.