House Democrats Face Losing Another Seat In The South
By Geoff Earle, CQ Staff Writer
Democrats began the new year with unpleasantly familiar news: yet
another of the party's hard-to-replace Southern incumbents has decided to
W.G. "Bill" Hefner, who has represented North Carolina's 8th District
since 1975, announced Jan. 5 that he will retire at the end of this, his
12th term. Hefner's announcement leaves Democrats scrambling to find a
candidate before the state's Feb. 2 filing deadline in a district
Republicans have come close to winning in recent years.
The 67-year-old Hefner said he wanted to spend more time with his
family. While insisting his own health was fine, he referred to two
relatives recently diagnosed with cancer and said thoughts of mortality had
influenced his decision. "Competition was not a factor in my retiring," he
Hefner's retirement brings to 12 the number of open seats Democrats
will have to defend in November, while Republicans now anticipate 11.
But Democrats have found it increasingly difficult to hold Southern
seats vacated by white incumbents. In 1994 and 1996, most retiring Southern
Democrats saw their seats go to Republicans -- resulting in the first GOP
majority of Southern House seats since Reconstruction.
Hefner himself had faced some tough electoral challenges in recent
years. He only exceeded 60 percent of the vote once in his career, and in
the last two election cycles he survived with only 55 percent (1996) and 52
percent (1994). In 1996, the south-central 8th voted for Republican Bob
Dole for president and for Republican Jesse Helms' re-election to the
In 1998, Hefner faced the prospect of a strong Republican opponent in
Robin Hayes, who runs a hosiery mill and is heir to the Cannon textile
fortune. Hayes lost a challenge to Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. in
1996, but he gained statewide name recognition in the process. Hayes'
campaign was noted for his personal contribution of family money and for
his emphasis on his opposition to abortion and sex education. Hayes
stumbled when he criticized state bans on carrying concealed guns into
courts and schools, even though he withdrew the criticism two days later.
No other Republican has emerged as yet, and Hayes has been
consolidating his support. He recently announced that he had raised
$150,000 in his first six weeks of campaigning (he also donated
$80,000 to his own campaign).
The biggest challenge for Republicans in the 8th will be to remain
unified on social issues. "If the Republicans nominate a good, sound person
who's not a fundamentalist, [or a] one- or two-issue kind of person, they
could take the district," said Ted Arrington, chairman of the political
science department at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
For Democrats, the challenge is more basic. They need to find a strong
candidate in less than a month. Among those mentioned are former Lt. Gov.
Bob Jordan of Mount Gilead and state Sen. Tony Rand of Fayetteville.
"They've both been out of it for years, so their name recognition is
zippo," said Arrington. "In terms of the public, nobody knows who they are
But Democrats may benefit from the latest redrawing of the district
lines under court order. The 8th was one of several districts affected when
the Supreme Court ordered a remapping of the adjacent 12th District. The
court held that the 12th, represented by Democrat Melvin Watt, was
unconstitutional because race was the predominant factor in its
A redistricting plan adopted by the North Carolina legislature in 1997
and approved by a three-judge federal panel has increased Democratic
numbers in the 8th by adding some black residents in the eastern part of
the district while moving some white residents into the new 12th.
Hefner was the ranking Democrat on the Military Construction
Appropriations Subcommittee, the panel he had chaired when the Democrats
controlled the House. Hefner is the third senior Demo-crat toretire from a
ranking slot on an Appropriations subcommittee in this cycle, joining
Sidney R. Yates of Illinois and Vic Fazio of California. That will leave
just five of the 13 Democrats who chaired the Appropriations subcommittees
in the last Democratic Congress.
Hefner's ranking position, along with his seat on the National Security
Subcommittee, enabled him to steer federal dollars home to his district and
attend to other matters important to his constituents with ties to the
Hefner's other strength was in his ability to appeal to social
conservatives in his district, many of whom knew him as a gospel singer and
radio host before he turned to politics in the early 1970s.
"He used the churches to start with," said George Little, a former 8th
District chairman for the GOP. "He'd be going around singing gospel . . .
I don't think they've got a gospel singer available at this time."
The combination of Hefner's personal popularity, incumbent advantages
and old Democratic voting habits made his earlier elections his easiest.
But shifting loyalties in the state and the district nearly brought him
down in the presidential years of 1984 and 1988, when North Carolina went
strongly Republican and Hefner barely hung on.
Despite his narrowing margins, Hefner often came through for his party
on tough votes. In 1994, for example, he supported President Clinton's
crime bill, which included a ban on certain semiautomatic assault weapons.
After that fall's Republican landslide, Hefner was made part of a
nine-member advisory group helping Democratic leaders formulate issue
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.