In N.C. Senate race, it’s the tea party vs. Karl Rove vs. Kay Hagan, etc.

November 22, 2013

CHARLOTTE — U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan this week congratulated former UNC-Chapel Hill head basketball coach Dean Smith on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a move she had urged President Obama to make. Besides establishing her Tar Heel bona fides, it was one thing the North Carolina Democrat could do without anyone objecting.

A year before her re-election bid, Hagan’s face is all over TV, in ads made to attack and — from the other side — bolster her record. But the effort to doom her chances by defining her as an Obama clone is complicated by her own record, by a state that isn’t quite as deep red as its Southern cousins and by a GOP opposition that disagrees on the candidate that would have the best chance against her.

Republicans shoot tantalizing looks at Hagan’s seat, crucial in their efforts to gain a majority in the U.S. Senate by targeting Democratic senators in states Mitt Romney won in 2012. They see an opening in dropping support for Hagan, tied to her vote for the Affordable Care Act; her once comfortable lead against all comers has disappeared. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank recounted Hagan’s difficulty explaining her positions and history on health care legislation in a recent conference call with reporters.

In Charlotte, tea party leader Christian Hine protests fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis featuring GOP strategist Karl Rove. (Mary C. Curtis)
In Charlotte, tea party leader Christian Hine protests fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis featuring GOP strategist Karl Rove. (Mary C. Curtis)

Events in Charlotte on Thursday showed, however, that reaching a consensus on GOP strategy moving toward that goal may not be so easy. Competing protesters didn’t quite meet outside a Karl Rove headlined, Bank of America Stadium fundraiser for North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis — thought to be the establishment Republican U.S. Senate candidate in 2014. The two groups were actually united in their view of big-money GOP interests, though their respective solutions were as far apart as you could get.

For about a dozen conservatives representing a variety of groups, GOP strategist Rove and Tillis embody “the ruling political elites that have dominated government,” instead of supporting principled pro-Constitution representation, said Vallee Bubak, a self-described Republican mom from Davidson, N.C. “You can’t buy an election.”

Rove’s Conservative Victory Project didn’t get much respect from local tea party leader Christian Hine, whose sign read, “Liber-TEA, not Rove.” Hine said, “If his goal is to get people who are electable, then he failed miserably,” referring to the low success rate for Rove-backed candidates in 2012. Though the group was more anti-Rove and Tillis than pro any particular conservative alternative, there are several, including four hopefuls who were scheduled to appear at a tea party-sponsored forum later on Thursday: physician Greg Brannon (endorsed by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky), broadcaster Bill Flynn, family nurse practitioner Heather Grant and the Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor.

On the other side of the street, Robert Dempsey, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said Tillis was “a lapdog for special interests, and they have him on a really short leash.” If you missed the point, state party spokesman Ben Ray stood beside him dressed in a dog costume. Dempsey recognized some common cause with the conservative protesters in their criticism of Tillis, and also Rove for meddling in the state primary process.

But Dempsey said that Tillis, who supported the government shutdown and opposed the deal to re-open it, could pass every tea party test. “Show me a substantive difference between any of them,” Dempsey said. “Hagan puts North Carolina first.” He said she was in a good position, despite falling poll numbers in the state for her, President Obama and the Affordable Care Act she voted for. “The only poll that matters is next November.”

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, Democrat from North Carolina.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, Democrat from North Carolina.

Hagan, who asked for an investigation of the ACA rollout, is also co-sponsoring a bill from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), also facing a tough re-election battle, which seeks to allow people whose insurance plans have been canceled to keep them.

On Friday, Hagan, who has been looking to change the subject, is scheduled to be in a Charlotte school holding a hearing on “Educating for the 21st Century: Bringing Today’s Classrooms into the Digital Age.”

It will be competing with a Friday panel in nearby Gastonia, as U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a critic of all things Obama, is scheduled to lead a congressional field hearing titled “Obamacare Implementation: Sticker Shock of Increased Premiums for Health Care Coverage.” Progress NC, a progressive Raleigh-based group, plans its own protest of Issa’s hearing and its pre-selected list of speakers.

On Thursday, Hagan announced in a statement that disabled veterans and surviving spouses and children of disabled veterans would receive a 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment, effective Dec. 1. “As our economy slowly improves, this increase in compensation will help disabled veterans and their families get by,” Hagan said, a popular sentiment in a state heavy in military bases with a quarter of a million veterans. Her military ties include a brother and father who served in the Navy and a Vietnam-veteran husband.

Those relationships are part of the message of a TV ad from the Senate Majority PAC that went up after the conservative Americans for Prosperity launched an ad campaign that continues, criticizing Hagan over her support of the ACA.

Barack Obama’s 2008 popularity helped carry Hagan into office, and Republicans believe confusion and anger over health-care reform legislation will bring her down in 2014. But though Romney won the state in 2012, the vote was much closer than in Arkansas, Louisiana and other red states with imperiled Democratic senators.

Since then, a wave of conservative legislation approved by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP super-majorities in the state House and Senate triggered protests on issues ranging from the reduction of state unemployment benefits to proposals that would cut funding from public education to requirements for a photo ID and other voter restrictions. McCrory also has been criticized for turning down federal Medicaid funds that could benefit the state’s uninsured.

A lot can happen in a year, of course, so current predictions don’t mean much. But what happens in 2014 may depend on which party brand has been damaged least or which campaign, backed by an infusion of national cash, can best frame the issues and the candidates.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.
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Joann Weiner · November 22, 2013