US Senator Kay Hagan has seen her seat land into the lean Republican land as her mostly unknown challengers have begun building a lead on her. (See: 2014 Senate Balance of Power Ratings.) Most recently, Hagan trailed her top two challenger by 7 points (Thom Tillis) and 4 points(Greg Brannon), according to a poll released this week by Rasmussen Reports. The scary part for Hagan? Fewer than 7 in 10 voters know who Brannon is and barely 6 in 10 for Tillis, yet still want either over her.
The Republicans need to net 6 seats to win back the US Senate in 2014. To do so, winning reddish states such as North Carolina is a must. Kay Hagan won during the 2008 Democratic sweep year and is one of the more vulnerable Democrats up for re-election.
Recent Elections in North Carolina
In 2008, President Obama pulled off a major upset in North Carolina when he won the state by a fraction of a point. Mitt Romney rebounded a bit for the GOP in 2012, but still only carried the state by 2 points over Obama. During the 2012 election, Republican Pat McCrory won the gubernatorial election handily after Democratic incumbent Bev Purdue – first elected in 2008 over McCrory – opted not to run due to poor performance ratings. The congressional districts have been trending increasingly Republican. In 2008, Democrats held 8 of the 13 congressional seats. Republicans picked up one seat in 2010, and then a trio of seats in 2012 and currently hold 9 of the 13 congressional seats.
The Democratic Incumbent
Kay Hagan finds herself in a very similar position to the woman she beat out in the 2008 Senate election, Elizabeth Dole. Then, Dole was a first term Senator with a strong alliance with an unpopular President. 2006 had trended heavily towards the Democrats and the billion dollar Presidential campaign would make previously safe seats competitive. (McCain spend very little money in the state, expecting to win without much effort). The GOP fell hard in 2008, and Dole along with it. State legislator Kay Hagan came in and took advantage of the situation, running a moderate campaign for the Senate and won by about 8 points. Now, Hagan is the first term US Senator with an unpopular President by her side and a voting record she is trying to hide from. her vote for Obamacare cemented her weakness in the election, and the recent disasters of the bill have only made her more vulnerable. Though Obama twice competitively ran in the state, North Carolina still tilts to the right and her moderate positioning has been destroyed by a record that has proven her a pro-abortion, anti-gun, pro-Obamacare politician.
The Republican Challengers
A handful of Republicans are fighting for the opportunity to go up against Hagan. On the downside, they are mostly unknown to the public, with almost all of the candidates being unknown to roughly 75% of voters. The lone exception is Thom Tillis, the Speaker of the House in North Carolina who is still unknown by over half of the voters according to PPP. The good news for the candidates is despite this, they all lead Kay Hagan. This is another similarity to Hagan’s 2008 run when she was a mostly unknown opponent. Right now, the advantage goes to Tillis, who has the greatest name recognition, solid fundraising, and has decent lead in the crowded primary. Tillis, like Oklahoma Speaker of the House TW Shannon, has done a solid job at implementing conservative policies in his recent role.
Running under the tea party/libertarian flag, Greg Brannon is a medical doctor who has received the backing of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and other conservative activists. As a doctor, he is perhaps in good position to lend credibility to the Obamacare debate against Hagan. Like Brannon, Heather Grant is also bringing her medical experience into the fold. With Tillis and Brannon getting a lot of the attention, Grant has an uphill climb but it has been done before: Deb Fischer came out of nowhere to when the Nebraska Senate primary in 2012 following a Sarah Palin endorsement.
Hagan is in trouble. Incumbents, even somewhat unpopular ones, usually poll well against unknown challengers. That is not happening here. For instance, even though just 9% of voters claimed they had a positive opinion of Greg Brannon – with a massive 72% having no opinion – he still led Hagan 43-41% in the PPP poll and 43-39% in Rasmussen. Tillis is the semi-frontrunner in the GOP primary and even he had just 15% favorable rating, as nearly 6 in 10 voters were not sure about him. Yet he still leads Hagan 47-40% according to Rasmussen. This is without the candidates having spent very little money so far even bringing up Hagan’s record.
Whatever candidate emerges should have an advantage over Hagan. The national mood should favor Republicans, similar to 2010. Hagan will not be sharing the ballot with President Obama, who spent considerable resources to turn out the vote in 2008. Of course, Republicans do have a special way of losing races they are supposed to win. Tillis is being branded as the “establishment” candidate and Brannon as the tea party candidate. They, along with Grant, all seem to be solidly conservative and any would be a welcome addition for conservatives.