Editor's Note: In the final 100 days before Election Day, CNN has been profiling one race at random each day from among the nation's top 100 House races, which we've dubbed "The CNN 100." Read the full list here. Today's featured district is:
North Carolina 11th - Rep. Heath Shuler (D) is seeking a third term
Primary: May 4, 2010
Location: Western, North Carolina
Days until Election Day: 78
(CNN) - If Republicans want to have a shot at winning back the House this fall, the path to the majority has to run through districts like North Carolina's 11th.
The 11th district may be conservative terrain, but it hasn't been reliably Republican territory. The district is the only one in North Carolina that is composed entirely of Appalachian counties, and its remote position in the extreme western tip of the state means that it sometimes sits apart politically. More than half of its residents live in areas that the Census defines as rural, but that pattern is offset by the presence of Asheville, a mid-sized city that in some ways seems to be a small piece of Vermont transplanted south of the Mason-Dixon line. Asheville has turned surrounding Buncombe County into an island of Democratic strength in a sea of lightly-populated Republican counties - Buncombe went for Barack Obama with 56 percent in 2008, while 51 percent of the district as a whole voted for John McCain.
Blue Dog Heath Shuler - memorably recruited as a 2006 candidate by then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel - rode into office with the Democratic sweep that year. The former NFL quarterback then lucked out in 2008 with an offbeat Republican opponent, winning re-election with 62 percent. Now, amid some indications his support in the district may be softening heading into the home stretch, the two-term congressman's taking nothing for granted. "Last time it was kind of a pass, and this time it won't be a pass," Shuler told the Smoky Mountain News earlier this month.
Still, Democrats have had the edge all year, and Republican Jeff Miller enters the race's final months a clear underdog. The businessman, who beat five other candidates to claim the GOP congressional nomination in May, is still relatively unknown. He'll need to spend big to introduce himself to local voters – and that's one area where Shuler still dominates: The incumbent had about $1.4 million as of the beginning of July to Miller's $65,000, an advantage of greater than 20-to-1. Despite newly-promised help for Miller from the FreedomWorks PAC, and the possibility of help from the national party, that gap will be tough to overcome.
Shuler's relatively easy race last time around allowed him to save a significant chunk of his campaign war chest – an advantage that could make the difference this year, in a much tougher fundraising environment: the Democrat still outraised Miller over the past six months, but by a much smaller margin, pulling in around $304,000 to his GOP challenger's $246,000.
The biggest question mark for Shuler is the same unknown facing the national party: can he count on the base to turn out this year, in numbers high enough to counter motivated Republicans and sagging approval numbers? That mystery is magnified for Shuler, who holds one of the lowest party unity voting scores among congressional Democrats, ranking in the bottom 10, and voted against the health care bill earlier this year.
After years of courting independents and Republicans, the need to turn special attention to the base was driven home in May, when an unknown and underfunded primary challenger took more than a third of the vote.
The state party, like national Democrats, recognizes the risks for conservative members in this year's race, treading lightly around Shuler, Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell, the three North Carolina congressmen who voted against the health care bill. A few weeks ago, state Democrats seriously weighed passing a resolution condemning the trio for their vote. But opponents of the measure argued that the three, all representing solidly conservative districts, needed to be able to vote the way their constituents, and the measure died.