Republicans need to win North Carolina. But so far, they’ve stumbled.

August 21, 2013

Rep. Virginia Foxx became the latest Republican to pass on the North Carolina Senate race Tuesday. "I already have the best job in North Carolina," Foxx said in a statement.

So, why aren't Republicans lining up to run against Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who is among the 2014 cycle's most vulnerable incumbents? Three reasons stand out: the general belief in GOP circles that state House Speaker Thom Tillis is a potentially formidable candidate, even as he's struggled early; the lack of a strong GOP bench; and the state's political tilt and climate, which is not as conservative as it may seem.

Let's take a look at each reason in turn.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). (Kay Hagan is saving up for a fight. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.).  (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Tillis is the leading Republican right now, but his first few months have been very underwhelming. He's attracted a string of at most negative and at least distracting headlines about donors getting seats on the UNC Board of Governors, accepting a substantial sum of campaign money from the gaming industry and launching his campaign in the midst of the legislative session.

"There was really a bad few weeks there," said an unaligned North Carolina Republican granted anonymity to speak candidly.

Still, Republicans eyeing the race say Tillis shouldn't be counted out or underestimated, and that there is time for him to straighten out his campaign before the race kicks into full gear next year. If he does, he will be well-positioned to take on Hagan, they say.

If he does not, it's not like there are a lot of obvious GOP alternatives.

"If you look at North Carolina's [GOP] bench, it doesn't exist," said the unaligned Republican, who pointed to an aging congressional delegation and a dearth of up-and-comers in statewide office.

Republicans weren't heavily courting Foxx. Nor was there a full-scale effort to get Rep. Renee Ellmers (R) to run, party strategists say. The focus now is on whether state Senate President Phil Berger or former ambassador Jim Cain will run.

There's no question that Hagan is vulnerable. But when stacked up against incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska, her outlook isn't as bleak. For one thing, North Carolina is much more of a swing state than the other three. And Democrats believe that recent maneuvering by Republicans in the state legislature on issues like abortion and voting laws will hurt them at the ballot box next year.

"There's no doubt the laws that they passed this year are going to fire up the Democratic base," said Thomas Mills, a North Carolina Democratic consultant and blogger.

The race, as it stands now, is shaping up as a Tillis-Hagan showdown. That could certainly change in the coming months if the Republican front-runner gets a serious challenger(s) or makes blunders that exacerbate his rough start.

Republicans have a real chance in this race, but they are working with a smaller margin for error than they have in Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana, where a more favorable climate and stronger recruits give them better chances of winning at this point in the cycle.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · August 21, 2013