Sen. Hagan says she’s governing as moderate

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 21, 2013

RALEIGH (AP) — U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan won’t let what predecessor Elizabeth Dole failed to overcome get to her. She’s getting out of Washington.
In 2008, the Democrat Hagan criticized the Republican incumbent as being out of touch with North Carolina. Dole had spent decades working and living in the nation’s capital with her husband, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, leaving the perception she stayed away from the state.
Hagan, who defeated Dole in an upset, shouldn’t have to address similar assertions as her 2014 re-election bid builds. She makes regular in-state public appearances, holds weekly morning coffees with North Carolina visitors on Capitol Hill and in November succeeded in holding her “Conversations with Kay” constituent meetings in all 100 counties.
“I’m doing this because I want the people of North Carolina to be able to come to me, see me face to face, express their concerns,” she said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. She added later: “I come home every weekend. I have a great husband who lives here, who works in North Carolina.”
But engagement back home won’t be enough alone to win another six-year term.
With North Carolina Republicans surging after the 2010 and 2012 elections, invigorated GOP politicians already are weighing whether to challenge Hagan. Expect national Republican groups and super PACs to spend millions of dollars against her in a year where Democrats will be defending 20 Senate seats.
The last North Carolina Democrat to win re-election to the Senate was Sam Ervin in 1968.
“Your first re-election is almost always a tough fight in a competitive state, and so she’s certainly not going to have a walk, and they’re certainly going to target her,” said Thomas Mills, the chief consultant for Democrat Elaine Marshall’s unsuccessful 2010 Senate bid against Richard Burr.
Hagan, a Greensboro attorney, former banker and ex-state senator, talks like she’s ready for the challenge.
Her campaign said it had $1.3 million in the bank in its last report. National Democrats also could come to her aid, like they did in 2008 running ads attacking Dole and linking her to President George W. Bush.
Hagan has “worked very hard to make herself very visible … which is what any incumbent should be doing,” said Paul Shumaker, who worked on Burr’s winning 2004 and 2010 Senate campaigns.
The senator, whose mentors include former Gov. Jim Hunt and her late uncle, Florida governor and Sen. Lawton Chiles, downplayed recent trends favoring Republicans. A “presidential and a gubernatorial race is usually about parties,” she said. “In the off year, it’s about the person.”
Hagan, 59, portrays herself as a hard worker spending her term trying to help North Carolina emerge from the recession she says was exacerbated in the state by federal trade policies.
“My goals are to help boost our economy and take down the unemployment, help reduce the federal deficit and really protect and support our military bases and their families,” she said. She said part of that focus has been to help emerging industries in the state to grow, including defense-related contracting, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
Legislation she sponsored to accelerate Food and Drug Administration approval of more life-saving medicines became law in 2012. Hagan and other members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation helped get a law passed that provides health benefits to Marines and family members exposed to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune.
She’s in a bipartisan group of 20 senators who meet on national debt and deficit issues. Gridlock was on center stage during last month’s fiscal cliff negotiations. Hagan said she’s willing to consider changes to Social Security and slow growth in other entitlements to reduce the debt — as long as promises to older adults are kept — and also believes targeted tax breaks should be closed.
“I look at myself — common sense, middle of the road, independent thinker, but the bottom line is (being) results-oriented,” said Hagan, adding that constituents ask her all the time why Congress can’t get along.
Despite billing herself as a moderate, Hagan’s future may hinge on President Barack Obama’s approval marks at the midterm elections. Hagan will be at the top of the ballot and could serve as a proxy for Obama, who lost North Carolina in 2012 by 92,000 votes.
“If it’s a year in which Republicans are doing better nationally than Democrats … then it’s going to be very hard for Hagan to get re-elected,” said Charles Prysby, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Mills said Hagan needs to communicate with liberal party activists now to energize them to actively support her in what will be a low-turnout election. He said she’ll have to explain some votes, including her 2010 vote against the DREAM Act, which would have given many young immigrants a path to legal status. Hagan said at the time she believed the legislation should be considered as part of a comprehensive immigration system overhaul.
She’s unlikely to face a primary challenge. Her ultimate Republican challenger probably won’t have that luxury. No GOP hopeful has entered the race, but state House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger are considering bids. They said separately this month they are focused now upon this year’s legislative session, although Berger went out of his way to criticize Hagan at a news conference last week. U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers is also looking at the seat.
Hagan has hired Lindsay Siler, who ran Obama’s North Carolina campaign operation since 2009, as a senior adviser in her Senate office. Hagan didn’t know whether Siler would ultimately move to her re-election campaign. Still, the senator sounded poised to implement a re-election strategy.
“We will run a modern campaign,” a confident Hagan said. “And we will win.”