Five years after she made national news by unseating Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole and just one year away from her next trip to the North Carolina ballot, Kay Hagan finds herself one of the more vulnerable Democratic senators in 2014.
With five Republicans already gearing up to challenge the former state legislator and niece of the late Florida Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, Hagan's re-election bid is on just about every political pundit's list of Senate contests that will determine whether Republicans take control of the Senate in '14.
With the Senate currently ruled by Democrats, with 55 seats to the Republicans’ 45, the North Carolina race inarguably is one of the 34 Democratic-held seats facing the voters that could go Republican.
A just-completed Public Policy Polling survey said as much. Hagan's disapproval among likely voters statewide went from 39 percent in September to 49 percent in October.
"It's no coincidence that the decline in Hagan's approval numbers tracks pretty closely with a big decline in President Obama's popularity over that same period of time," concluded the survey’s analysis, "He's gone from having voters in the state pretty evenly divided about him in September at 48/49 to disapproving pretty strongly at 43/53."
As for Hagan, she's been hurt most severely by the difficulties in the rollout of the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — which Tarheel State voters already disapprove of by a margin of 48 percent to 38 percent statewide, according to the poll. As for the rollout, PPP found 69 percent of voters say it has been unsuccessful so far, with only 25 percent deeming it a success.
And it was no surprise to find Hagan either losing to one prospective Republican opponent and narrowly trailing four others in PPP's test races.
The question for state Republicans in their primary in May is which candidate to choose to square off against the embattled Hagan.
With the recent announcement by state Senate President Phil Berger that he would not make a long-anticipated Senate bid after all, most attention among GOP activists was focused on the state's other powerful legislative kingpin, House Speaker Thom Tillis.
"Thom Tillis has been the premier mover behind most of the key items on the conservative agenda in Raleigh over the past year," veteran North Carolina GOP consultant Marc Rotterman told Newsmax. "Whether it was reducing the size of government or providing a fair and honest identification of voters, one would always find Speaker Tillis playing a key role in their enactment into law."
PPP showed that in a test race, Hagan narrowly edged Tillis by a margin of 44 percent to 42 percent.
Tillis' problem is that of any other veteran office-seeker pursuing a Republican nomination in 2014: A resume in elective office may be more of a hindrance than an asset among likely primary voters.
Physician Greg Brannon, a favorite of the tea party, is hoping to be the beneficiary of this anti-politician atmosphere. Running as a constitutional conservative, Brannon has the backing of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Erick Erickson of RedState. Columnist and best-selling author Ann Coulter recently weighed in on Twitter to contrast Brannon's harder line on illegal immigration with that of Tillis.
Brannon was the lone Republican leading Hagan (44 percent to 43 percent) in PPP's polling.
Rounding out the field are Mark Harris, a prominent Baptist pastor from Raleigh; nurse Heather Grant, campaigning as an "everyday person"; and Winston-Salem radio announcer Bill Flynn, who lost a primary challenge to Republican Rep. Howard Coble last year.
Cultural-conservative hero Harris just signed on former state party chairman Robin Hayes as his campaign manager and, according to PPP, trails Hagan 43 percent to 41 percent. The little-known Grant trails the senator 43 percent to 40 percent. Flynn entered the race after the polling was complete.
Unique among Southern states with runoff provisions is North Carolina's rule requiring "40 percent plus one" rather than the usual "50 percent plus one" to determine a nominee outright in the primary. But given the intensity of the contest and the sense that Hagan is vulnerable, few believe any of the Republican contenders will pass "40 plus one," so a run-off appears certain.
But given the condition of Kay Hagan politically and the trend in North Carolina that elected a Republican governor and put both houses of the Legislature in Republican hands last year, it seems safe to say that this is a Senate race that will be watched nationally regardless of who winds up facing the senator.
John Gizzi is chief political correspondent and White House correspondent for Newsmax
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