RALEIGH — Kay Hagan’s self-identification as a middle-of-the-road U.S. senator who fights for the middle class, among other groups, and responds effectively to constituent requests may sound trite coming from any politician’s mouth seeking re-election.
“When you look at me as being moderate, that’s being somebody who understands what the issues are (and) working to get action done in specifics on those issues,” Hagan said in a recent interview, adding that she’s been telling supporters about “the common-sense results that I’ve been able to put forward for North Carolina families.”
But Hagan believes that’s what North Carolina voters elected her for in 2008 and prefer now as they decide whether to give her a second term in the Senate. Her persona contrasts starkly with what she calls extreme policies Republicans want to give the nation and are already giving North Carolina as the majority party for the first time in 140 years. Their agenda have led to mass protests and arrests in Raleigh.
As millions of dollars in commercials backed by national conservative groups already have aired in North Carolina criticizing Hagan, the Greensboro Democrat has developed an early campaign strategy that attempts to link national and state conservative politics. She’s drawing connections between out-of-state patrons of conservative causes paying for many of the TV ads and state House Speaker Thom Tillis, one of the eight Republicans competing in their May 6 primary for the right to face Hagan and an architect of the GOP takeover.
Keeping the politically vulnerable Hagan in Washington is considered essential for Democrats to preserve their Senate majority.
“I’m talking about that the stakes are so high in this election year and how this election is a choice between me, who puts North Carolina first every day, and my opponents, who are putting the special interests first,” she said.
Hagan, 60, has her own primary next month, but her nomination is all but secure. She faces two Democrats, Ernest Reeves and Will Stewart, but they haven’t held elected office before and are running low-key campaigns. Hagan’s campaign operation already moved into high gear months ago. She said her campaign had more than $8 million in the bank entering the spring.
Her strategy took off in March when her campaign began an online and social media campaign connecting Tillis with the conservative financiers of Americans for Prosperity, industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch.
The criticisms from Hagan’s camp began last fall as Americans for Prosperity ran commercials criticizing Hagan for backing the health care overhaul at the time of troubled online rollout and aligning her closely with President Barack Obama. She said the ads ran because the Kochs and other conservatives like the job Republicans have done in North Carolina state government on taxes, regulations and cutting off federal jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. Americans for Prosperity supported many policies approved by North Carolina Republican legislators.
“It’s a thank you to Thom Tillis, who has championed their agenda in Raleigh,” Hagan said. “That is the special interest Koch brothers’ agenda in Raleigh.”
Democrats are hitting back at the Koch brothers in other key states where their incumbents are threatened, but the link to state politics is a twist. Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant who worked on Elaine Marshall’s unsuccessful 2010 Senate bid, questions whether bringing in the Kochs complicates her message.
The Koch connection is “too removed from people’s day-to-day lives,” he said. “Why are you getting in the way of your own message, which is Thom Tillis is wrong for North Carolina?”
But other party activists say they like the tactic. “I think it’s important for people to know who’s paying for all of these ads and the intense negative campaign that’s going on,” said state Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham.
Hagan has started attacking Tillis alone, too, running her first radio ad last week. Tillis campaign spokesman Jordan Shaw called the ad a “desperate attempt to meddle in the Republican primary” on the heels of a similar television commercial run by the Washington-based Senate Majority PAC about personnel problems in Tillis’ state House office. Clearly Hagan would benefit should Tillis be forced into a GOP primary runoff or lose.
National Democrats and their allies are coming to Hagan’s aide as they did six years ago, when the largely unknown state legislator first had to win a competitive party primary before challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
But she pulled off the upset, benefiting from a good year politically for all Democrats and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which spent $12 million supporting her and attacking Dole, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
2014 is different. Historically, the party in the White House doesn’t perform well in the midterm elections of a second-term president.
“She’s probably the underdog right now,” said Charles Prysby, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, “but she certainly has a fighting chance of winning.”
“Her best hope,” Prysby added, “is that in November Obamacare looks a lot better.”
Hagan is persuaded she will win and wants to return to Capitol Hill because “middle-class families need a voice like mine in Washington, D.C., and I take that seriously.”
Linda Garrou, who roomed with Hagan when they both served in the North Carolina Senate, said her close friend is more than up to the task of fighting for re-election. “I’m sure that the pressure is tough, but I can ensure you she handles it and just rolls along with it.”