Election: U.S. Senate: Can Dole survive Hagan challenge?
By Mark Wineka
On paper, it seemed like no contest.
Salisbury native Elizabeth H. Dole routinely found herself on a list of the most admired women in the world.
She had served in the cabinets of two presidents and as head of one of the country’s greatest service organizations, the American Red Cross. Had her husband, Bob, been elected U.S. president in 1996, she would have been First Lady.
Dole ran briefly for U.S. president herself in the 2000 election, then became the first woman U.S. senator ever elected in North Carolina in 2002, taking the seat held by conservative icon Jesse Helms.
Early this year, the nationally known Republican’s re-election seemed like a formality, as Democrats scrambled unsuccessfully to find a name candidate to oppose her.
Energetic state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro, a 10-year legislator and former corporate attorney, eventually emerged from a crowded Democratic field of lesser known candidates.
On the night of her primary victory, Hagan immediately told supporters she wanted to send Dole, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” back to her husband Bob’s home state of Kansas.
It was a signal for a recurring Hagan theme in the months ahead ó that Elizabeth Dole hardly spent any time in North Carolina and hadn’t for 40 years, that Dole was aging and one of the more ineffective senators, that Dole voted with the Bush administration nine out of 10 times and that Dole put party and special interests ahead of taxpayers.
Meanwhile, everything conspired against Dole politically. Confidence in the lame-duck Bush administration sank to all-time lows.
High interest in Democrat Barack Obama’s presidential campaign led to hundreds of thousands of new voters in North Carolina ó voters likely to help other Democratic candidates in the Nov. 4 election.
The Republican nominee for president, John McCain, hasn’t been in the state since June.
Dole’s chief opponent was a woman willing to go on the attack while receiving millions of dollars of television ad support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which had targeted Dole for an upset.
But several weeks ago, Dole’s re-election bid in North Carolina became a true battleground as concerns about the U.S. economy took a stranglehold on the psyche of voters. Every other issue took a back seat as gas prices skyrocketed, banks closed, stocks plunged, credit markets tightened, the government debated a $700 billion bailout plan, retirement savings dried up and more home foreclosures loomed.
Analysts say this boiling brew of factors gives Dole serious reasons for concern. (See accompanying story.)
Interestingly, in the biggest economic issue of recent weeks ó whether the government should approve a $700 billion rescue plan for the ailing financial industry ó both Dole and Hagan opposed the bailout.
Dole was one of 25 U.S. senators voting against the plan, saying she had to stand up for taxpayers and oppose a hasty, knee-jerk reaction. She spoke of putting faith in free enterprise ó with appropriate regulation and oversight ó before resorting to nationalized control of the economy.
“I say we must take the time to get this right,” she said, adding a number of possible alternatives were being suggested by economists, bankers and experts.
A member of the Senate Banking Committee, Dole says she repeatedly stood up and fought for stronger oversight and transparency, especially for mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
Dole co-sponsored legislation in 2003, 2005 and 2007 that would have established an independent regulatory agency to have authority over the agencies, and she has emphasized how she was ahead of curve in warning about their problems.
Hagan said she would not have supported a bailout, calling it “a fix for Wall Street, not Main Street.” Any bailout legislation should have included protections against the abuses that caused the financial industry’s crisis, she said, and it didn’t do enough to guard families against lost jobs, high energy prices and falling wages and home values.
The Hagan camp contends Dole was silent too often in Banking Committee meetings and was actually a vocal proponent of financial deregulation, introducing a bill in March to loosen reporting requirements for financial institutions under Sarbanes-Oxley guidelines.
Dole was calling for a cut in the regulation of banks just when judgments in the banking industry were suspect, Hagan charged.
“How could she seek to make it easier?” Hagan asked recently in a conference call with reporters.
Dole and the political organizations that support her have not not shied away from going on the attack against Hagan, who the Dole campaign has dubbed “Fibber Kay” for supposedly telling lies about the incumbent.
One ad has tried to connect Hagan with outspoken actress Rosie O’Donnell and her anti-gun stand.
Meanwhile, Dole’s Web site keeps a “Smear Meter” showing that more than $7.8 million has been spent in negative attacks against her.
Dole and Hagan have tried to tie each other to “Big Oil” interests. Dole says she has attempted to rein in Wall Street, while pushing for more domestic drilling and refineries to wean the country off foreign oil and address high gas prices.
Dole has talked about her roles in saving thousands of jobs related to N.C. military bases, providing $4 billion for N.C. farmers through the tobacco buyout and giving sheriffs better resources to fight criminal illegal immigrants.
The incumbent also has not shied away from talking about the economy, laying out an extensive “economic security plan” that talks about her energy initiatives, tax relief, building up the transportation infrastructure, expanding Trade Adjustment Assistance for laid-off workers, reducing frivolous litigation affecting business and providing help for those affected by the mortgage crisis.
Hagan, a former co-chairperson of the Appropriations/Base Budget Committee, has countered that Dole has voted 92 percent of the time with President Bush on issues affecting the country.
Hagan reminds voters that Dole spent only 13 days in North Carolina during 2006, a year when she was heading the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. “She wouldn’t qualify for in-state tuition,” Hagan says.
In addition, Hagan says, Dole has voted against increases in the minimum wage and expansion of health-care insurance coverage for kids. The repeated Hagan theme is that Dole and Bush put special interests in charge, giving breaks to oil companies and Wall Street and leaving the middle class behind.
Meanwhile, Hagan says she would bring a bipartisan approach to the U.S. Senate. She points to her high effectiveness rating in the state Senate and touts a record for investing in education, balancing budgets, expanding healthcare coverage and providing tax relief.
Some of the U.S. Senate candidates’ views on Iraq, illegal immigration, health care, energy and the economy are included in the chart accompanying this story.
Dole’s state campaign headquarters are based in Salisbury, and her campaign Web site is www.elizabethdole.org.
The Hagan Web site is www.kayhagan.com.
By Mark Wineka and Steve Huffman email@example.com Democrat Kay Hagan followed through Thursday on a promise to seek legal action... read more