Can Sen. Kay Hagan can get away with what other red state Democrats can’t?

April 17, 2013

Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina is one of five Senate Democrats running for reelection next year in a state Mitt Romney won in 2012. Yet she's flashed something of a blue streak lately, coming out in support of gay marriage, and pledging to vote for a bipartisan measure to expand background checks on gun purchases.

What gives?

The answer may lie in the political makeup of North Carolina, which is several shades less red than the other four Republican-leaning states on the 2014 map Democratic incumbents are trying to defend.


(Zach Frailey/AP)

The conservative tilt of North Carolina is not nearly as pronounced as that of Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, or Montana -- at least not at the presidential level. It was the third-closest state in the 2012 election, with Mitt Romney defeating President Obama by just 2.2 percentage points. By comparison, Romney carried the other four states by double-digit margins.

Still, the positions Hagan has staked out are not without political risk in her state, where the GOP had a banner 2012 cycle, winning back the governor's mansion and picking up three seats in the House (the latter achievement was aided in large part by a favorable redistricting map). Late last month, Hagan came out in support of gay marriage, a notable decision considering a clear majority there voted last year to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

There are now only three Senate Democratic holdouts who don’t support gay marriage. Two of them – Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) Mary Landrieu (D-La.) -- are running in aforementioned 2014 red state contests.

Hagan's support for the compromise to expand background checks on gun sales reached last week by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) is also risky. She announced her support on Monday, and as of Wednesday morning, the measure looked like it was headed for defeat. Not even all Democrats are supporting it. And Pryor and Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska -- a third Democrat up for reelection in a red state next year -- broke ranks with their party last week to try to block debate on the larger gun control bill. Thus, Hagan could be in the position of declaring support for a losing measure on a politically sensitive issue.

Why do that? Well, even if she took a stand against the background check compromise, she wouldn't likely win much good will from the powerful National Rifle Association, which has assigned her an “F” rating. By comparison, Begich (AQ) and Pryor (C-) have received better marks from the nation’s largest gun rights group.

In other words, there's a kind of darned-if you-do-darned-if-you-don't dynamic for Hagan. And in such cases, standing with the party base -- most of which is expected to be for background checks -- may have a bigger political upshot, especially in a state with a substantial number of Democratic voters.

"On issues like gay marriage and gun control, there is no safe political harbor for any candidate," said North Carolina Republican strategist Carter Wrenn.

For its part, Hagan's campaign says her decisions are rooted in pragmatism, not politics. "Senator Hagan is working with folks on both sides of the aisle to represent North Carolina values in the Senate," said Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner.

Hagan's overall voting record last year put her at the ideological middle of the Senate. According to National Journal's 2012 vote ratings, she was the 48th most liberal member of the upper chamber last year.

Nonetheless, she is far from invulnerable heading toward 2014. Polling shows voters are split over her job performance. While no clear Republican alternative has stepped up, there are some potential prospects including Rep. Renee Ellmers, state Speaker Thom Tillis and state Senate President pro Tem Phil Berger.

All five Democratic incumbents playing on a conservative field are expected to face tough races next year. And all will be forced to take some tough votes in this Congress. But compared to the natural party tilt of the home states of some of her colleagues, Hagan's uphill climb isn't nearly as steep.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · April 17, 2013