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North Carolina: GOPers Circling Around Hagan

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

May 15, 2013

The last time an incumbent Democratic US Senator was reelected in North Carolina was 1968, when the legendary Sam Ervin won his fifth term with 61% of the vote. Since then, under the onslaught of the growth of a vibrant, if not always victorious, conservative Republican Party, a GOP challenger has managed to unseat every freshman Democratic senator. Moreover, the current freshman, US Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who will be up next year, has several controversial positions that will give her trouble, especially her recent support for same-sex marriage and for increased background checks for gun purchasers. While at least one poll showed the gun control vote might help her, it is problematic whether that would prove true in the rough-and-tumble of a campaign in which the National Rifle Association would be working to defeat her (the group gives her an “F” grade). Her 55% liberal voting record, according to the National Journal, makes her the 48th most liberal Senator, moderate enough, but also liberal enough to give the GOP plenty of votes to attack.

 

Hagan “works hard,” says Ferrell Guillory, Director of the University of North Carolina’s Program on Public Life, and is a member of important committees in the Senate, including Armed Services; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Hagan, 59, comes from a wealthy and politically important Florida family (the late governor and US Senator Lawton Chiles was her uncle). Before her election to the US Senate in 2008, she served in the North Carolina legislature.

 

On the financial front, Hagan reported raising $1,561,000 in the 1st Quarter of 2013, and had $2,708,000 on hand. While a substantial sum, Hagan’s war chest is less, per voter, than that raised by fellow Southern Democrats up for reelection next year.

 

While Hagan is expected to be renominated without significant opposition, the opportunity of running for a winnable seat in the US Senate has a large number of Republican politicos looking at the race. Two – albeit minor – GOPers have already announced, physician and Tea Party activist Greg Brannon, who is campaigning across the state, and police detective Terry Ember. Neither has held public office before and at this point neither appears to have a reasonable chance.

 

The list of potential Republican contenders, however, is filled with influential officeholders.

 

State Senate President pro tem Phil Berger, 60, could be a serious contender. He’s been in the state Senate for 13 years and president pro tem since 2011. He is known as a successful fundraiser for the GOP. He is an attorney. One knowledgeable source, however, believes he is moving away from making the race.

 

State House Speaker Thom Tillis is in his seventh year in the legislature and has served as speaker since 2011. He is from the Mecklenburg County area, where he has especially good contacts with Charlotte’s important business community, and like Berger, has been a successful party fundraiser. He served in local government prior to winning a seat in the legislature. His earlier business experience includes an executive position with IBM and a partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

 

Berger and Tillis “are rivals in the state legislature,” says Guillory, noting that in the Senate “Berger got a bump in the press for unveiling a massive tax cut plan, but House Republicans were cool to it.”

 

State Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry has been “a consistent winner,” notes Guillory. After seven years in the state House of Representatives, Berry was elected as the first woman state Labor Commissioner in 2000 and was reelected to her fourth term last year. Prior to entering politics, she was a businesswoman and owner of a spark plug manufacturing plant. Besides having substantial name ID, Berry could gain from being a woman, since some GOP insiders believe running a woman against Hagan would be a good thing.

 

US Rep. Renee Ellmers, in her second term and a photogenic 49, is looking at the race, but so far has made no decision. She has several advantages, among them that, like Berry, she is a woman. On the negative side, while her voting record and positions on such hot-button issues as abortion and immigration are conservative and appeal to much of the GOP base, she angered some hard-right partisans, such as the Club for Growth, by voting with Speaker John Boehner (R) on several economic issues (but Boehner’s good will could also help her). Another problem could be money; she raised $98,000 in the 1st Quarter and had $134,000 on hand, but she would need as much as $10 million or more to finance an effective primary campaign and a General Election effort. Prior to entering politics Ellmers was a nurse and clinical director of the Trinity Wound Care Center in Dunn.

 

Fifth-term US Rep. Virginia Foxx (R), 69, gets mentioned and could be formidable. She currently serves as Secretary of the House Republican Conference. Nor can one rule out as potential candidates the other Republicans on North Carolina’s congressional delegation.

 

In sum, there is likely to be a highly competitive Republican Senate primary next year, with the possibility of a runoff if no candidate receives 40% or more of the vote in the first go-round. And, says Guillory, the primary “is likely to highlight the divisions in the Republican Party.”

 

A Public Policy Polling (PPP) (D) survey, taken in mid-April, showed that Republicans are not so far coalescing around particular candidates, but significantly, the top three were women. Berry, who has been on four statewide ballots, led with 18%, followed by Foxx with 13% and Ellmers 12%, the latter two becoming somewhat known from being in Congress. Berger had 11% and Tillis 7%. In General Election matchups, Hagan led all her potential foes, but only polled 49% or less, not strong for an incumbent. The strongest Republican against Hagan was Berry, who trailed the incumbent by only 5 points. At this point, the surveys measure little more than name identification, but Hagan’s lack of major strength, while not determinative, is significant.

 

Stay tuned.

   
   

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