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.
Particularly important, Republican insiders said, will be avoiding a nasty, resource-depleting runoff, likely in July 2014, that would limit the amount of time the victor would have to focus on the race against Hagan.
Top GOP prospects include state Speaker Thom Tillis; former ambassador to Denmark Jim Cain, a lawyer; and four-term Rep. Patrick T. McHenry.
Among other names floated: Rep. Renee Ellmers, Rep.-elect George E.B. Holding, Raleigh lawyer Kieran Shanahan and state Sen. Phil Berger.
One McHenry aide told Roll Call the congressman hasn’t ruled out anything.
Cain, in an email, said he “will look at opportunities to return to Public Service, including potential elective office in the next few years, but [has] made no decisions as of yet.”
Ryan Erwin, a consultant for Ellmers, said in a statement she “has been approached by a number of people but has not yet given it serious consideration.”
Tillis, Holding, Shanahan and Berger didn’t respond to Roll Call’s requests for comment.
Whoever ends up being the GOP nominee will have help, and not just from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
GOP third-party groups, who had significant successes in North Carolina during the 2010 and 2012 cycles, are already eying Hagan as a ripe target.
“Educating folks about her support of President Obama’s policies will be the No. 1 priority of Americans for Prosperity North Carolina in 2014,” said Dallas Woodhouse, AFP’s Tar Heel State director.
Hagan, a former bank executive and state senator, won her first term in 2008 by more than 8 points, unseating Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole. She has kept a moderate profile during her time in the Senate. In votes where a majority of Republicans oppose a majority of Democrats, she voted with her party 90 percent of the time in 2011, 88 percent of the time in 2010 and 91 percent in 2009.
While Hagan voted in favor of the health care overhaul and the 2009 stimulus bill, she already has marquee occasions to point to when she bucked her party.
The senator cast her vote in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline this year; against free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama last year; and against the 2009 Food and Drug Administration tobacco bill.
“She is good at appealing to independent voters,” Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., said. “She has a good way about her out in the community. She’s always out there. She’s all over the place.”
Indeed, today Hagan is slated to hold her 100th town hall meeting, known as “Conversations With Kay,” since she began doing them in the state in 2009. She has held town halls in every county.
Hagan had a respectable $1.3 million in cash on hand at the end of September. That’s more than Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who both face tossup races in 2014. But it’s less than other Democratic senators in potentially competitive races, such as Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Warner of Virginia.
And Hagan will be facing a potentially unfavorable climate as a member of the party in its sixth year controlling the White House, the “six-year itch.”
Still, insiders expect Hagan to be ready for a tough campaign, in terms of both resources and strategy. Not surprisingly, that’s a sentiment echoed by her aides.
“Anyone who thinks they’re going to catch her asleep doesn’t know Kay Hagan,” Chief of Staff Mike Harney said. “When it comes down to the campaign, she’ll be ready.”