Hagan claims Dole’s Senate seat
By Mark Wineka
Salisbury’s own Elizabeth Dole, a history maker six years ago when she became North Carolina’s first woman U.S. senator, lost her seat Tuesday to Democrat Kay Hagan in one of the state’s all-time political upsets.
The Election Day result ó Hagan outpolled Dole 53-44 percent with 99 percent of votes tallied ó matched most pre-election polls that showed Dole trailing.
Never fazed by Dole’s political resume, Hagan, a feisty state senator from Greensboro, waged an unrelenting campaign that in the end upended the 72-year-old Dole, whose political career may have ended Tuesday.
Hagan said her win “is a testament to how hungry people are for change.”
Meanwhile, Dole’s planned victory party at the Salisbury depot changed Tuesday night to a place where she delivered an emotionally charged concession speech.
But Dole promised she would not retire as a public servant.
“I’m really not that old, and I’m not ready for retirement,” Dole said. “… I will rededicate myself to public service wherever and whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
Dole told her crowd of supporters that “serving you has been the honor of my life.”
As she left the podium, she joined up with husband Bob waiting to the side, waved one more time to the crowd and disappeared into a waiting car.
Dole, constantly criticized by Hagan during the campaign as an absentee senator, said the red clay of North Carolina was in her blood.
“Salisbury has always been my Rock of Gibraltar, and my home has always been Salisbury,” she said.
From the podium, Dole congratulated Hagan on her victory and asked those in the Salisbury audience to pray for God to guide and support the new senator once she takes office.
With the election decision in, the night was about coming together, Dole said.
Dole acknowledged that she wasn’t happy with the tone the campaign took between the candidates, but she said she didn’t regret fighting back ó a comment which probably drew the night’s longest applause.
Dole said “people from faraway places” injected millions of dollars into negative attacks against her, but overall she expressed an optimism about the country based on the people she met during the campaign.
She hasn’t lost faith in the American system, “because we are the greatest country on the face of the earth,” Dole said.
Dole walked to the podium at the Salisbury depot about 9:42 p.m. Before she arrived, her supporters watched in quiet acceptance as the updating numbers kept showing Hagan with a sizeable lead.
An hour earlier, at 8:43 p.m., Fox News projected Hagan as the upset winner.
“It was almost the perfect storm,” Rowan County supporter Donna Peeler said of all the elements that combined to defeat Dole. “And the Democratic National Committee put so much money in here ó nobody knew who Kay Hagan was in May.”
Peeler spent most of the day with Dole, who visited about a dozen Rowan County precincts after she voted in the morning, took a break and visited two more before waiting out the results at her Salisbury home.
Bob Dole campaigned elsewhere Tuesday, but without knowing their paths would cross, they both ended up at Gary’s Barbecue in China Grove for lunch.
Sometime during the day, Bob Dole went to a Food Lion grocery store and specially ordered a cake that said, “Good luck, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth Dole spent a good portion of her concession speech thanking her campaign and office staff and ticking off some of the accomplishments of her long career in public service and politics. She said it was the highest honor in her life to have been elected U.S. senator.
“I’ve done my level best to make you proud,” Dole said.
Dole said she viewed the job as a mission field, one in which she was able to help people such as soldiers, farmers and displaced workers. She described North Carolina as a state that knows about sacrifice from all of its men and women who are serving in the military and from those who have fought for the country in wars past.
From the moment she won the May Democratic primary, Hagan began painting the picture of Dole as an absentee and ineffective senator who voted with the Bush administration nine times out of 10.
But the race didn’t really turn until September when the melting economy began dominating the headlines. It continued to do so thanks to that perfect storm of unemployment, rising gas prices, home foreclosures, bank closures, record Wall Street losses and forced government bailouts.
Add the hundreds of thousands of new Democratic voters Barack Obama brought to North Carolina’s voter registration rolls, and Dole, who early in the year looked invincible, was fighting for her political life.
Meanwhile, Hagan proved to be an energetic adversary who trumpeted her own accomplishments as a state senator and was not intimidated by the Dole resume.
Hagan often made references to giving Dole a ruby red pair of slippers ó like Dorothy in “the Wizard of Oz,” ó and sending her back to Kansas. Dole used to vote in Kansas with her husband, Bob, the former U.S. senator from Russell, Kan., before buying her mother’s house on South Fulton Street in Salisbury and establishing an N.C. residence so she could run for the Senate seat in 2002.
In Washington, the Doles have lived for many years at the Watergate.
Hagan liked to say she was the only candidate who lived in North Carolina and the only one whose husband could vote for her.
The Hagan campaign repeatedly told voters that Dole had been in North Carolina only 13 days in 2006, when Dole chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee working to get GOP Senate candidates elected.
The year before that, Hagan asserted, Dole had only been in North Carolina 20 days.
Interestingly, both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee played significant roles in the Hagan-Dole contest by sponsoring and producing millions of dollars worth of ads aimed at the other party’s candidate.
Outside groups reportedly spent at least $22 million to influence the race, according to a pre-election report. In the weeks leading up to election and as polls showed her trailing, Dole loaned her own campaign $3 million to buy more television time.
Across the state, of 11 daily newspapers who endorsed candidates in the U.S. Senate race, all went with Hagan.
As it became obvious that Dole might be in danger of losing her seat, the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina gained more national attention and discussion.
That interest peaked last week when the Dole campaign issued its “Godless Americans” television advertisements leading Hagan to file intentions of a defamation and libel suit against Dole after the election is over.
What effect, if any, the ads had on the race will long be debated. The Dole camp said they were accurate and raised questions as to why Hagan would attend a fundraiser in her honor that was held at the Boston home of Woody Kaplan, an advisory board member of the Godless Americans political action committee.
Dole and her advisors later would say they never questioned Hagan’s own Christian faith, only her judgment in attending the fundraiser and accepting money from Kaplan, whose group has a strongly secular agenda.
But critics ó and Hagan ó charged that the ads did exactly that. Hagan called the first ad vile, an act of desperation and unbecoming of someone of Dole’s stature. Dole defended the ads until the end.