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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.