Amid the Democratic celebrations in Washington this week, the Southern branch of the party began making long-term plans to increase its share of officeholders by improving the competition in local races. North Carolina’s Sen. Kay Hagan has a more urgent task. Hagan, voted into office in the Democratic wave of 2008 when candidate Barack Obama won the state, will be running for reelection in 2014 when the atmosphere looks to be less favorable, and Republicans know it.
North Carolina, which hosted the Democratic national convention, reverted to red in 2012. Republicans poured time and money into the state, and though he didn’t run away with it, Mitt Romney came out on top in the presidential race. In other races, the GOP did even better, picking up House seats, the governorship and strengthening control in the state legislature. In demographic trends, North Carolina still resembles Virginia – which Obama won last year – rather than reliably red South Carolina. But Hagan has her work cut out for her.
Hagan is promoting her North Carolina roots and her individuality. As the gun control debate forces vulnerable Democrats to make tough decisions, Hagan’s Web site boasts her support for Second Amendment rights. And this week, she was named a co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, which includes more than 300 members of Congress from every state. Her co-chairman is Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). Hagan has been the caucus’s vice chairman since January 2011.
“North Carolina is among the best places to hunt and fish in the country, and I’m honored to continue working to protect our rich outdoor heritage,” she said in a statement that emphasized the economic benefits of the state’s wildlife. “I grew up in a family of lifelong hunters, and some of my favorite activities are hiking and fishing with my family across our state. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to advance policies important to sportsmen and women.”
After Nebraska’s Republican Gov. Dave Heineman approved an alternative route for the Keystone XL pipeline this week, Hagan joined a group of senators from both parties encouraging President Obama to act swiftly to sign off on the project.
“Now that Nebraska has approved an alternative route, I encourage President Obama to quickly approve the Keystone XL Pipeline that will create thousands of American jobs while providing energy security for our country,” Hagan said. “We must reduce our dependence on oil imported from unstable countries, and this pipeline should be part of a comprehensive effort that includes clean and renewable energy to make our nation more secure.”
Hagan has disagreed with the president in the past (she voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, preferring a more comprehensive plan), and boasts of her independence in Congress. She works with a bipartisan group of senators on debt and other issues and works with her Republican counterpart, Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), on legislation to benefit the state. Despite some grumbling from progressive voters, Hagan will likely be targeted by Republicans during the campaign, as they try to link her to the president in hopes of taking a Senate majority.
On her Web site, Hagan touts her support of the military in a state dotted with bases and home to many veterans. In early January, she visited Charlotte Bridge Home, a nonprofit that helps veterans transition into civilian life after service. The senator that Hagan defeated, Republican Elizabeth Dole, was hurt by the perception she was more Beltway than North Carolina. With regular “Conversations with Kay” across North Carolina, as well as meetings in Washington with visiting constituents, Hagan hopes to avoid that characterization.
The most recent Public Policy Polling North Carolina poll shows Hagan leading seven potential Republican challengers for her Senate seat, despite a job approval rating of 34 percent (with 36 percent disapproving and 31 percent not sure.) The numbers show at least a six-point advantage (but no larger than 10 points) over those potential challengers from the U.S. House and statehouse delegations. And it showed Hagan has work to do shoring up the Democratic base, particularly in a midterm election year.
Though one election cycle just ended, 2014 is already taking shape in unpredictable North Carolina, with a race the country will be watching.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3