Rep. Shuler to retire, faced tough 2012 race

Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) will not run for reelection to the House. 

One of the last remaining members of the Blue Dog Coalition, Shuler was hit by congressional redistricting that made his western North Carolina district much more difficult for a Democrat to win. The three-term congressman had been floated as a possible candidate for governor in North Carolina, but announced on Wednesday that he would not be running for that office.

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Shuler did not address the new challenges that redistricting created for his electoral prospects, but in a statement on Thursday said he wanted to spend more time with his wife and two children.

“This was not an easy decision,” Shuler said. “However, I am confident that it is the right decision. It is a decision I have weighed heavily over the past few months. I have always said family comes first, and I never intended to be a career politician.”

Shuler stressed to reporters that family considerations were his sole reason for leaving Congress.

“I’ve got to be at home more, spend some more time with them,” said Shuler, who has a 7-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son.

“When you’ve got a 7-year-old girl, and you left on Tuesday and she calls you Wednesday and says, 'Come home now' ... I want to be home with those kids.”

First elected in 2006, Shuler built a brand as a fiscal conservative unafraid to break with Democratic leadership on issues of spending, voting against President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus bill as well as healthcare reform.

He also launched an unsuccessful attempt to oust Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) from her position as the Democratic leader in the House after the party lost control of the majority in the 2010 midterm elections.

Pelosi made no reference to the leadership challenge in a statement issued Thursday, but said Shuler's colleagues from both parties would miss him.

"Congressman Heath Shuler has been a national leader for fiscal responsibility who has always maintained a laserlike focus on his constituents in western North Carolina," Pelosi said.

Shuler won his 2010 reelection by eight points over Republican Jeff Miller in a district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried with a five-point margin over Obama in 2008. But after the GOP-controlled Legislature redrew the district by siphoning off Democrats and adding Republicans, he faced a much tougher reelection battle.

Shuler already faced a primary challenge from Democrat Cecil Bothwell, a journalist and member of the Asheville, N.C., City Council.

On the Republican side, the field is expected to be crowded and to include real estate investor Mark Meadows, prosecutor Jeff Hunt and 26-year-old businessman Ethan Wingfield.

Shuler dismissed the idea that increased partisanship on Capitol Hill had made it more difficult to be a member of the Blue Dog Coalition in Congress, or that redistricting had forced his hand.

“It only changed two points from where I was a year ago, and I won by 10,” Shuler said. “So 10 in the worst Democratic performance in history. So 10 minus two is eight.”

He becomes the 32nd member of the House to announce plans either to retire or to seek higher office. Twelve House Democrats, including Shuler, are retiring without running for another office, compared to six GOP members.

Shuler said that he informed party leaders about his decision on Thursday, and they had not tried to persuade him to change his mind.

“I think that had been done for the last few weeks,” he said. “This is not a surprise to any of them.”

Republicans immediately observed they had made Shuler a top target by airing television ads against him as far back as March 2011.

“Heath Shuler’s retirement in this strong Republican seat is another turnover to end his second career in Washington, and it is also a cautionary sign of the troubles House Democrats face with Barack Obama on the ballot in November,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay.

For his part, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Shuler’s retirement was not a major blow to his party's chances to regain control of the House. 

“At the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, we said redistricting would be a wash,” Israel told reporters. “It still is.”

Shuler said he would likely re-enter the business world.

“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” he said. “I will definitely be in the business world in some capacity.”

For Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, a return to athletics could be in the cards. Knoxville, Tenn., radio station WLVZ reported in June of 2011 that Shuler was considering an open athletic director position at the University of Tennessee, where he played in the 1990s.

— Cameron Joseph and Bernie Becker contributed.

This story was posted at 4:53 p.m. and has been updated.