Hagan attended the Democratic National Convention in her home state in September even as other North Carolina Democrats stayed away. She is a top GOP target for defeat in 2014, and Republicans have a wide bench of credible candidates who could face her.
Election night wasn’t kind to North Carolina Democrats. President Barack Obama lost the state to Mitt Romney. The governor’s mansion flipped to GOP control — marking the first time since Reconstruction that the party will control all three branches of state government. And at least three Democratic House members are going to be replaced by Republicans in the 113th Congress.
Those numbers would all appear to point to a sticky path to re-election for Kay Hagan, the Tar Heel State’s junior senator and one of Republicans’ top targets for 2014.
But the underlying dynamics of the state are more complex than last week’s results would portend.
“Despite the GOP victories in 2012, North Carolina is still a purple state trending blue,” said Paul Shumaker, a top North Carolina Republican consultant who helped craft GOP Sen. Richard M. Burr’s solid re-election effort in 2010.
The state is more and more urban and suburban. And recent cycles have shown a growth of soft Republican and unaffiliated voters who are comfortable splitting their tickets. Shumaker said that those trends will require whoever the GOP nominee is to get through a primary while not losing sight of securing those center-right votes when the general election rolls around.
Morgan Jackson, an influential North Carolina Democratic strategist, said Hagan begins her run well-positioned for victory, but he stressed it will be hard fought.
“By no means is this gonna be an easy win,” he said. “North Carolina is a very purple state, so it’s gonna be competitive no matter who the Republican candidate is. But the sweep of demographics favor her.”
Jackson also noted the growing urbanization of the state and an increasing number of Hispanic voters, both trends that favor Democrats. And there are other election numbers that buoy Democratic hopes.
Although Obama lost the state last week, he won it by a small margin in 2008. A GOP-controlled redistricting process was primarily responsible for the Republican pickups in the House — indeed, more North Carolinians voted for a Democratic member of Congress than a Republican one. And a handful of Democrats won statewide elections for offices such as treasurer and secretary of state.
One early advantage for Hagan: She’s almost certain to avoid a serious primary, leaving her time to stockpile resources for the general election.
Republicans probably won’t have that luxury, with a wide bench of credible candidates who could jump into the contest.
“The key to success for Republicans is going to be avoiding a divisive primary,” Shumaker said.