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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 retire.

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 said.

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 Senate.

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 anymore."

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 configuration.

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 military.

Gospel Singer

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 positions.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.

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