RALEIGH – With three weeks to go in the 2006 campaign cycle, many North Carolina political junkies are turning their eyes to the west, watching closely Democrat Heath Shuler’s challenge to longtime incumbent Charles Taylor, the Republican who represents the state’s 11th Congressional District. The outcome of this spirited and highly competitive race could determine control of the U.S. House of Representatives and could also challenge cherished notions about electoral districts and partisan inclinations.

As recently as six months ago, in my experience, political insiders in Raleigh did not see Taylor as threatened by Shuler’s much-hyped bid. State Republicans reassured themselves that a mountain district that gave President Bush nearly 60 percent in 2004 and has re-elected Taylor seven times would never stray out of the red category. State Democrats resigned themselves to seeing Shuler – a former football star who wore his faith and moderate social-policy views on his businessman sleeve – as an excellent candidate who happened to be running in the wrong district.

No more. As the summer began, state Democrats began to see and hear more buzz about Shuler, and to perceive Taylor as truly vulnerable in a blue-trending year. For their part, Republicans started getting nervous. Some said they wondered if Taylor realized how serious a threat the Shuler candidacy was. Once relegated to the longshot file, the Democrat’s campaign moved into the status of interesting underdog, then serious contender. Now, based on a couple of recent public polls, including a John Zogby/Reuters survey giving Shuler an 11-point lead, some consider him to be the clear frontrunner (Shuler even did something the other day that frontrunners usually do – decline to debate).

That perception is premature – Zogby’s results in other races over the past two cycles have been quirky enough to garner criticism from other pollsters – but there’s no question that Shuler has at least an even chance now of winning the race. Realizing this, Taylor has pumped an unprecedented amount of money into his campaign, both from donors and from his own sizable wealth. Shuler isn’t hurting in the fundraising department, either, in part because of continued flows from out-of-state activists and in part because North Carolina Democrats have rallied to his cause and pitched in to help. Outside interests, ranging from party committees to MoveOn.org, have also spent significant sums in the 11th District, making the relative finances hard to peg. It’s safe to say, though, that both sides have attracted the resources necessary to run an effective campaign.

As I discussed in a prior piece on the 11th District race, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Shuler has been able to mount a credible challenge. Democrats have won other competitive races in this region in recent cycles, including separate state senate contests in 2002 and 2004 featuring Democratic candidates mixing social moderation and economic populism. It’s the right mix for swing voters in these mountain counties, whose doubts about national Democrats on issues such as federal judges and national security (Shuler has pointedly not made the Iraq war much of an issue this year) do not necessarily translate into opposition to traditional Democratic messages on other matters.

It’s three weeks out. Many more ads will be run, phones will be called, emails will be sent, and press statements will be released before the voters have their say. Outside the district, political observers will be fascinated to discover whether a district that appears on the numbers to be Republican-friendly will produce a contrary outcome. Have we become too enamored with the idea that redistricting decides elections?

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.