RALEIGH, N.C. — Democratic high school teacher Larry Kissell's win Tuesday advanced a Democratic shift in North Carolina's congressional delegation that started two years ago, with the party now holding eight of the state's 13 seats.
The shift started with Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler's victory over longtime Republican incumbent Charles Taylor in western North Carolina. Democrats gained another seat this year when Kissell upset 10-year Republican incumbent Rep. Robin Hayes to win the 8th Congressional District, which spans Charlotte to Fayetteville.
Kissell and Hayes' race was the closest of the 13 contested U.S. House seats, according to election data. Kissell held 55 percent of the vote with 100 percent of precincts reporting preliminary results.
All the other incumbents retained their seats.
Kissell came within 329 votes of unseating Hayes two years ago despite a long-shot, low-budget bid, and national Democrats took notice. The party backed Kissell this year with hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a television advertising campaign.
Shuler, a former NFL quarterback and University of Tennessee star, won re-election for the first time Tuesday against Asheville city councilman Carl Mumpower.
"I kept my word. I did what I said I would do, and I think the people saw that," Shuler said.
In 2006, Shuler had the financial backing of national Democrats, but Kissell's campaign relied on door-knocking and featured a pet goat named for a a free-trade deal he opposed. Yet, that was enough for the former textile-mill worker to threaten Hayes, an heir to the Cannon family's textile fortune.
The son of a teacher and an Army veteran, Kissell left his job at a textile mill in the late 1990s, just before many of the state's manufacturing companies began shuttering their plants.
As he did two years ago, Kissell focused his campaign on voters' frustration with the economy and the lack of job opportunities in a district hit hard by the textile industry's collapse.
"It comes down to keeping that American dream alive. That message resonated with people," said Kissell, 57. "I've known all along that we have an opportunity to redirect this nation. We look forward to making the lives of the people in this district better."
Hayes, 63, had managed to keep control of the Democrat-leaning district for a decade by emphasizing his Christian values and a traditional conservative platform of lower taxes and strong families. He developed robust relationships with his constituents.
However, he spent the final days of this year's closely watched race backpedaling on comments he made before a rally for GOP presidential nominee John McCain, when he said "liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God." Hayes initially denied making the comment, but faced with an audio recording of his speech, he acknowledged a mistake.
Andrew Duke, Hayes' chief of staff, said Democratic President-elect Barack Obama's success in North Carolina contributed to Republican losses in North Carolina. Besides losing the 8th District, Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan defeated incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
"We tried to lead the last lap, but we couldn't overcome the early voting," Hayes told the Fayetteville Observer after conceding Tuesday night in Charlotte.
Hayes didn't rule out running for office again, but said he would offer Kissell any help he needs. Kissell said Hayes was "very generous" on the phone.
A tight race had been expected in the 10th District, but Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry easily held off former prosecutor and decorated Navy veteran Daniel Johnson. The district spans the largely rural foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains and is arguably the most Republican-leaning in the state.
The Navy awarded Johnson its highest peacetime award, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, after he lost his legs while rescuing a shipmate who was ensnared in ropes on his ship.
McHenry was elected at age 29 in 2004 and was the youngest member of the 110th Congress. He is a frequent and noted critic of Democrats, a role he said stems from a desire to hold the party in power accountable.
Johnson, 32, had called McHenry's style of politics "troubling" and promised to be less divisive if elected. The Democrat resigned as a Wake County prosecutor in 2007 and moved back to his hometown of Hickory to challenge McHenry.
McHenry said Tuesday the Republican Party has to reform its message.
"We have to get focused on delivering for people," he said. "The fact is that we are a moderate to conservative nation. Republicans have to tone their message and return to core principles."