Hagan Knows She Has Tough Challenger in Tillis to Retain Her Senate Seat

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) says that her Republican challenger in the November election, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, will be a tough challenger in her re-election bid.

“The stakes are high this year,” Hagan said to a crowd of about 300 Democrats gathered last month at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem.

“My opponent, Speaker Tillis, and his special interest friends have already poured more than $12 million into our state, into this race against me,” Hagan said. “Thom Tillis and his friends are trying to buy this election.”

“They are not part of any community in North Carolina,” she added. “And they don't care about our values. I want you to help me tell them that our state is not for sale.”

Hagan's attack on Tillis is the latest salvo in her battle to keep the seat. Jordan Shaw, Tillis' campaign spokesman, didn't return repeated requests for comment.

However, Todd Poole, a spokesman for the N.C. Republican Party, criticized Hagan for her comments about Tillis' campaign.

"Kay Hagan is a hypocrite who practices an absurdly blatant double standard when it comes to third-party spending," Poole said. "Hagan loves to decry outside groups critiquing her liberal record and pointing out she has voted with President Obama 95 percent of the time during her career.”

"But Hagan has no problem with her liberal allies spending millions in North Carolina to save her failing campaign," Poole said.

Political observers say that Hagan is vulnerable to Tillis’ candidacy because of her support of the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. And the Republicans in the Tar Heel State have won the past two general elections.

State Rep. Paul Luebke is a Durham County Democrat and a sociologist who has written two books on North Carolina politics. Luebke said he expects a close race between Hagan and Tillis in Hagan's re-election bid.

Some voters are unhappy about the conservative legislation passed last year by the Republican-dominated state legislature, Luebke said.

"There is a widespread feeling that Republicans overreached on a number of issues," Luebke said. "(Republican legislators) had a lack of commitment to education by ignoring teachers' concerns, including their salaries. That has led to lot a dissatisfaction. Tillis is tied to the extreme policies of the Republican Party."

Tillis and his Republican supporters will try to tie Hagan to her support of Obamacare, Luebke said.

"Tillis' campaign will tag her as an ally of Obama's botched program," Luebke said.

But Hagan has portrayed herself as a moderate on issues important to North Carolinians, Luebke said. Her stance appeals to moderates, traditional Democrats and unaffiliated voters.

Luebke said he also expects the contest between Hagan and Tillis to be financially costly.

"It will be an outrageously expensive race," Luebke said. "North Carolina is a large state with 10 million people. Each side will try to reach voters in lot of the state's media markets."

Washington Republicans hope that Hagan’s defeat will hand them a Senate majority this fall.

In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney beat Democratic President Barack Obama in North Carolina while Republican Pat McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte, won the governor's race in the state. In 2010, Republicans won a majority of seats in the N.C. General Assembly. The N.C. GOP maintained that majority in the 2012 election.

Pundits and political operatives say North Carolina, once a red state whose majority of voters helped elect Republicans such as Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, to the presidency, became a purple state when Obama narrowly defeated Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2008.

Six years ago, Obama's coattails helped Hagan defeat Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in her re-election bid. In 2014, Obama's name is not on any ballots in North Carolina, and Hagan and the N.C. Democratic Party will run a campaign on her record as the state’s second female senator in Washington.

During the May 6 primary, Hagan and Tillis easily won their party’s nominations to run for the Senate seat in the fall election.

Hagan won 77 percent of the vote in the Democratic Party’s primary to beat two lesser-known Democratic candidates, according to state election results. In the Republican primary, Tillis won nearly 46 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff against seven other Republican candidates.

His primary opponents included tea-party backed candidates Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary, N.C., and the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte.

Hagan and Tillis will be joined by a third candidate on the November ballot. Libertarian Sean Haugh of Durham, N.C., won slightly more than 60 percent of the ballots from registered Libertarian voters in that party's primary.

The number of registered voters in the state suggests that Hagan might have an advantage over Tillis on Nov. 4. Out of a total of 6.57 million registered voters in the North Carolina, 2.75 million are registered Democrats, 1.99 million are registered Republicans and 1.74 million are unaffiliated voters.

However in North Carolina and in other Southern states, Republican candidates have drawn ballots from conservative Democratic and unaffiliated voters since the late 1960s.

The Republican ascendancy in what was the solid Democratic South occurred after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s.

Conservative white Democrats flocked en masse to the Republican Party, and those voters helped elect Jim Holshouser in 1972, the first Republican governor in the state in the 20th century, and Jim Martin in 1984, the second GOP governor in 1900s.

A coalition of Republicans, conservative Democrats and rural voters helped elect the late Republican Sen. Jesse Helms to five consecutive Senate terms from 1972 to 2002.

Political observers say Tillis has a strong chance to beat Hagan in November if the Tillis campaign can persuade a majority of voters that the conservative agenda that he has pursued as the speaker of the N.C. House is the right approach for the state.

Hagan must convince voters that her moderate stances on most issues are the best way to help middle-class families in North Carolina. She will likely tap into the coalition of Democratic voters who supported Obama in the past two presidential elections – blacks, liberal and moderate whites, single women and some business people – in her effort to defeat Tillis.

Hagan and Tillis achieved statewide recognition for their service in the state legislature.

Hagan served 10 years in the N.C. Senate before she became the first woman to defeat an incumbent female senator (Dole) in 2008. She and her husband, Chip, have three grown children. In Washington, Hagan is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican, was elected to the N.C. House in 2006. Tillis has been re-elected to four additional two-year terms in the N.C. General Assembly.

The House Republican Caucus first elected Tillis as House speaker in 2011, a post he has retained since then. Tillis and his wife, Susan, have two children.

In recent weeks, the campaign staffs of Hagan and Tillis and officials with the N.C. Democratic and state GOP have sent emails to North Carolina’s news media, criticizing the candidates’ positions on a range of issues.

Hagan and her allies attack Tillis for his leadership role in the state legislature, which last year passed the voter identification bill and refused to expand Medicaid coverage to 500,000 state residents as part of Obamacare.

In turn, Tillis and his allies continue to roundly criticize Hagan for her support of Obamacare and her tacit backing of the N.C. NAACP, which has led the Moral Monday protests in Raleigh against McCrory and the Republican-dominated state legislature.

Two readers of the Winston-Salem Journal and many average citizens believe that the U.S. Senate race this will be a nasty political contest with constant TV and radio advertisements from both sides.

“The Hagan campaign will pound away at holding Thom Tillis accountable for all of the things he proudly takes credit for but so many people do not like what the Republicans have done in Raleigh,” Steve Barneycastle wrote in a letter to the newspaper.

“The Republicans will attach Sen. Hagan to the president in every way they can, and rightfully so, as she was a good loyal Democrat,” Ken Hoglund wrote in a letter to the Journal. “Just as George W. Bush poisoned the well for Republicans in 2008, President Obama has done the same for Democrats.”