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Posted at 10:51 AM ET, 02/21/2011

Can Ilario Pantano get to Congress?

By Rachel Weiner

Ilario Pantano knows how to generate headlines.

"Ladies and gentleman, it is time to start offending!" Pantano joked during an appearance on a panel about political correctness and the military during the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month in Washington.

The question for Pantano is whether he can go beyond the headlines -- and the controversies that surrounded him during his 2010 race -- and win a rematch against North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre (D) next November.

Pantano failed to take down McIntyre despite the national Republican wave as two stories from his past complicated the campaign.

First, Pantano worked for on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs, and, second, he was accused of killing two unarmed detainees while serving in Iraq. (The murder charges were dropped by the military when a witness' testimony could not be corroborated). Both issues could well come up again as Pantano pursues a rematch against McIntyre.

In 2010, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used Pantano's work for Goldman Sachs against him, framing a whole television ad around it.

A prominent tea party activist used it as a reason to support McIntyre.

While Democrats didn't seek to make an issue out of the Iraq story (and Pantano argues that voters were on his side), but it came up often in press reports on the race. In one ad, Pantano used footage from an NBC interview but cut out questions about Wall Street and Iraq.

While Pantano won't be able to change his past, his political future may be brighter due to the upcoming redistricting process in the Tar Heel State.

Gerrymandering helped keep Republicans down in North Carolina in 2010; Democrats won seven of North Carolina's 13 seats last November despite getting only 46 percent of the total congressional vote statewide.

Now, after nearly a century of Democratic control, Republicans are getting a chance to redraw the map. (North Carolina is one of three states where legislators have total power over the process so even though the state's governor is a Democrat, it doesn't matter.)

David Wasserman, a redistricting expert and House race editor at the Cook Political Report, told the Fix he sees two possible scenarios for the map in North Carolina heading into the 2012 election.

Scenario 1: Republicans abandon Pantano. Under this plan, redistricting would move African-American -- and reliably Democratic -- voters from the Cumberland County portions of the 2nd and 8th districts into McIntyre's 7th district. That would help freshman 2nd district Rep. Renee Ellmers (R), who squeaked out a win over longtime Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) last fall, in part thanks to a damning YouTube altercation. It would put 8th district Rep. Larry Kissell (D) in danger. But it would leave McIntyre safer than he was before.

Scenario 2: Republicans alter the 7th District by chopping off the Democratic parts -- Robeson County and Cumberland County -- and adding in very Republican Onslow County to the north, borrowing it from Rep. Walter Jones' (R) safe 3rd District. This more aggressive plan would convert McIntyre's district from one that gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 52 percent in 2009 to one that would have given him 55 percent. Kissell or Ellmers would take on Robeson County and African-American parts of Fayetteville, which would make those districts slightly less favorable for the GOP. Republicans could also cut the black neighborhoods of Wilmington out of McIntyre's district, making it even more competitive.

"My sense is that Republicans will be under heavy pressure to go for the 'aggressive' scenario and may overreach," Wasserman told the Fix. "Obama-level turnout should help McIntyre in a big way, and he could conceivably win a district that was 5-10 points less favorable than it is now, given his appeal and likely 2012 turnout." (McIntyre's district is currently 21 percent African American.)

There's also the possibility that Republicans will put McIntyre and Kissell in the same district, forcing the two Democrats to run against each other. But that would make Kissell's district more Democratic.

For his part, Pantano says he's prepared for any scenario. "Am I aware that redistricting is an issue? Absolutely," he said. "I'm still a relative political neophyte ... but I'm a two-time Marine combat veteran, so I look at this all very pragmatically. We're going to hope for the best but prepare for the worst."

Pantano argues that having the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina will only hurt McIntyre, who has touted his support from Republicans. McIntyre, the only North Carolina Democrat to vote for the health-care repeal, already faces a primary challenge from the left.

Pantano has to hope that he can keep the focus on McIntyre rather than debating his own resume, which wound up being his downfall during the 2010 campaign.

For his part, Pantano isn't spending much time re-hashing what happened in the last campaign. "There's an expression in the military, 'paralysis from analysis,'" he said. "Sometimes you just have to say, it feels right."

By Rachel Weiner  | February 21, 2011; 10:51 AM ET
Categories:  House  
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