RALEIGH – With most of North Carolina’s congressional districts drawn in such a way that competitive elections in November are essentially unthinkable, political observers have in recent election cycles gotten used to focusing their attention almost entirely on Rep. Robin Hayes, whose 8th district, by the numbers, should be in play. This year, it’s different. My reading of the state and national Democratic buzz is that the race to watch is Rep. Charles Taylor’s 11th District, covering most of the North Carolina mountains.

At first glance, targeting Taylor for defeat makes Democrats appear vainglorious. Or perhaps desperate. Once the most competitive congressional seat in the United States, the 11th District was transformed during the 1990s, both by redistricting and by immigration of Republican professionals and retirees, into GOP territory. Its vote for George W. Bush approached 60 percent in 2000 and 2004 (though that’s not dissimilar from the state as a whole). Its percentage of Democratic registration is far below 50 percent, the traditional marker, whereas Democratic registration in the 8th remains at or above that marker. And despite some spirited challenges in recent cycles, Taylor has won between 55 percent and 57 percent of the vote each November since 1998.

But Democratic hopes in the 11th aren’t irrational once you look more closely at the trends and candidates involved. First, the district contains many solidly Republican mountain counties, it is true, but it also contains Buncombe – which makes up a third of the electorate and contains Asheville, a town with an undeniably leftward trend. In off-year elections, turning out the ideological base of a party is critical to success. There are many Democrats in Asheville (and elsewhere) who appear anxious to cast a vote against Republican rule in Washington. I wonder if Republicans in places such as Hendersonville and Brevard, many disaffected with President Bush and seeing no statewide races of interest to them (sorry, your honors), will see a compelling reason to turn out.

Also, not to be flippant about this, but where else are Democrats supposed to look for opportunities? Gerrymandering has reduced the number of truly competitive seats nationwide to a few dozen. Washington prognosticators say that there are only 28 to 30 competitive races for U.S. House in 2006 – a third held by Dems and the rest by Republicans. If they are to take control of the chamber, the former will have to defend all their vulnerable seats plus win all but about three or four of the vulnerable Republican seats. In other words, any road to a Democratic House in 2007 probably runs through Western North Carolina.

As for the candidates, the Democratic nominee will be Heath Shuler, a former University of Tennessee quarterback who played briefly in the NFL and now runs a family business in Haywood County. He is portraying himself as a moderate, pro-business Democrat who emphasizes honesty in government, job creation, and traditional values. Of the recent candidates to challenge Taylor, he is probably the most marketable in the district – and this fact has gotten out to Democratic donors around the country (though I’m told that the fundraising take to date has not exactly blown anyone’s socks off).

As for Taylor, he’s been dogged for years by allegations of ethical improprieties related to businesses he operates in North Carolina and Russia. While these allegations so far have been largely of the “he said, she said” variety, news broke earlier this week of an embarrassing episode involving, you guessed it, Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The Saginaw Chippewa tribe, represented by Abramoff and his cronies, were seeking federal aid for school construction. Bush’s Interior Department, to its credit, initially resisted the proposal because of the tribe’s significant casino revenues and the administration’s firm commitment to fiscal discipline in Washington. (OK, I added the latter statement for giggles.) Abramoff prevailed on Democratic allies in the U.S. Senate to get the money inserted in legislation during the 2002 session, and then worked on the Republican House to grease the skids.

But according to news reports, a Republican Hill staffer repeated Interior’s objections. Abramoff responded by pointedly listing the campaign dollars GOP candidates had received from the tribe and encouraging Republicans to reward their friends. This may have been simply another example of the smarmy, wasteful ways of Washington – except that the staffer worked for a House subcommittee taken over in early 2003 by none other than Rep. Taylor. He agreed to the Saginaw Chippewa request.

Defenders of Taylor argue that his decision was motivated by a desire to secure similar school-construction funding for North Carolina’s Cherokees the following year. (That’s a defense, for a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative?) Opponents point out that a month before Taylor signed a letter endorsing the funds for the Saginaw Chippewa, Abramoff & Co. threw the congressman a fundraiser. The take included thousands of dollars from Abramoff’s firm and the tribe.

You can be sure Shuler will play up these and other allegations in the general election. An early test for Taylor will be how a Republican challenger, John Armor, fares in next month’s primary. Armor has somewhat of a conservative following on talk radio and the Internet as “Congressman Billybob.” Political junkies will be searching the vote totals carefully, looking for tea leaves.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.