Recently on Political Wire's podcast, we spoke to Rob Christensen, a political writer with the Raleigh News & Observer who is often called the "dean of North Carolina politics," for an in-depth look at Tar Heel State politics and the state's key U.S. Senate race.
Here are five takeaways:
1. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) is highly vulnerable. The Tar Heel State may be purpling with every election cycle, but Hagan has a number of factors working against her in her re-election bid. For starters, she was elected in 2008 during a Democratic wave year with the help of miscues by her opponent, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.). Hagan also has carried a low profile in the Senate and isn't a leader on any major issues, so she's not well-known among her own state's voters. Finally, she has a D and an ObamaCare vote next to her name in a year when the electorate will likely skew Republican. ObamaCare could have an especially large effect in North Carolina, where the GOP-controlled state government chose not to expand Medicaid. Fewer insurers than expected entered the state as a result of that decision, Christensen explained. "With fewer insurance companies the rates were a little bit higher," Christensen said.
2. One silver lining for Hagan: The GOP field isn't terribly impressive. Hagan's low profile, her ties to ObamaCare, and the likely GOP-friendly electorate will work against her. But her Republican opponent won't have a big profile, either. The best-known GOP candidate is state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), a business-oriented establishment candidate. Despite his political experience, he hasn't run for statewide office before, so he isn't very well-known. And the tea party-aligned candidate, Greg Brannon, and Baptist leader Mark Harris have never sought elected office before. "This is not the Republican 'A-Team' that's vying for this seat, and that has to be somewhat a disappointment to the Republicans," Christensen said. Perhaps as a result, Hagan is very much still in the race, with recent polls showing her and Tillis, currently the GOP favorite, in a statistical dead heat in a hypothetical November matchup.
3. Here comes the outside money — lots of it. With Senate control at stake, outside money will be and already is a huge factor in this Senate race. Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity has already spent at least $8 million in the Tar Heel State, while liberal groups such as the PAC backing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have also spent millions. That outside spending will only continue, Christensen said, given the Senate seat's importance to overall Senate control. Christensen added that Democratic groups, fearing the idea of the GOP nominating the establishment candidate Tillis, are actually trying to do in North Carolina what they did in Missouri in 2012 — run ads that undermine the GOP's establishment favored pick. The idea is to get a more gaffe-prone, farther-right candidate such as Brannon nominated instead, just as former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) got the GOP nomination against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Christensen said.
4. Clay Aiken is a serious candidate, but he'll still probably lose. The former American Idol star is seeking the Democratic nomination in North Carolina's 2nd congressional district. Even though he has no political experience, his name recognition instantly gives him a good shot at the nomination. He also is no pushover in terms of his credentials, Christensen said — Aiken has a history of civic service and has worked as a special-education teacher. Aiken could very well win the Democratic nomination. But winning the general election is a far taller order. This district, currently held by Rep. Renee Elmers (R-N.C.), was carved to help elect Republican candidates. Elmers won the 2nd district by nearly 15 points in 2012, and her margin may well increase this year with an electorate that's friendlier to the GOP.
5. Don't underestimate the power of the Clintons in North Carolina. Former President Bill Clinton remains popular here, Christensen said, even though he didn't carry the state in either of his presidential runs. If Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, she could be a formidable candidate in the Tar Heel State, benefiting from the Clintons' brand, southern roots, and an increasingly moderate electorate. "This would be a Clinton kind of state, I think. And among Republicans, at this point I think everyone is sort of scratching their heads," Christensen said. One Republican who could do well in North Carolina in the 2016 GOP nomination season is Mike Huckabee, whose social conservatism would play well in the rural parts of this southern state.