North Carolina’s Sen. Hagan prepares to fight outside special interests in re-election

Renee Schoof

As Sen. Kay Hagan prepares for what is likely to be a tough and competitive re-election campaign, she emphasized a populist message that would portray her as fighting for average North Carolinians against Republicans on the side of “outside special interest money.”

The Tar Heel state Democrat hopes to gain an advantage by contrasting her work on Capitol Hill with the influence of undisclosed outsiders who are pouring in money to defeat her.

"These individuals don’t know the people, don’t know the values, don’t know the problems,” Hagan said in an interview on Tuesday previewing her 2014 campaign. “They’re looking for any issues having to do with their corporations and their taxes.”

That contrast could be decisive, she said. “It’s my work for North Carolinians versus the special interests who are trying to buy this seat.”

Hagan’s Republican opponent is still unknown. But the race is among about 10 high-profile contests that will likely decide who controls the Senate in 2015. What makes the race so troubling for both parties and so tantalizing for political junkies is that North Carolina has become one of the most unpredictable political landscapes in the country in recent years.

President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and Hagan unseated a Republican that same year to win her Senate seat. But as of last year, Republicans now control state government and Obama lost the state when he ran for re-election in 2012.

In the interview, conducted at the offices of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Hagan touched on other themes she intends to emphasize. She’ll counterattack Republicans who try to make the race about President Barack Obama, especially with his approval ratings low over the Affordable Care Act, by saying they should be talking about North Carolina instead.

She also plans to campaign statewide, even in eastern counties where Republicans dominate, and will stress her record on farming, education, veterans and economic policies.

For their part, Republicans have focused for weeks on Hagan’s vote for the sweeping health care law, generally referred to as Obamacare, and her promise – echoing the president’s and since shown to be false – that people could keep plans they liked.

On Tuesday, the North Carolina Republican Party flagged what it called Hagan’s “bogus excuse for snubbing Obama” by not joining him for an appearance in Raleigh to talk about the economy on Wednesday. The National Republican Senatorial Committee joined in: "Hagan may not be in North Carolina on Wednesday, but her presence will be felt since she can’t hide her support of disastrous policies like Obamacare and the failed stimulus," said NRSC Press Secretary Brook Hougesen. “I’ve got a job to do, and I’ve got serious votes to take,”

Explaining her absence, Hagan said the Senate could be voting Wednesday on extended federal unemployment insurance, including her provision to end North Carolina’s status as the only state without it. The General Assembly reduced the amount and length of state unemployment insurance, triggering a law that shut off the federal money.

“I’ve got a job to do, and I’ve got serious votes to take,” she said.

Hagan also sponsored an amendment to eliminate cuts in military pensions for people age 62 and under that the Senate could soon vote on as part of the unemployment measure.

On Obamcare, Hagan said the law needs a few fixes, including the elimination of the medical device tax, a move that would help businesses in the state. A bill she proposed should be made law so that people can keep plans they like, not just for a year as is already the case, but permanently. And people should get more time to sign up, given the widespread problems on the federal and state enrollment websites since their October launch.

“What I don’t want to see is a time when if you had a pre-existing condition you would no longer be able to get health insurance coverage,” she said. “Women were charged more than men. If you hit your maximum you could be taken off health insurance. So I think the real contrast once again there is, do you want to go back?”

Hagan said she expected to see more competition in the insurance market. Medical increases already have dropped. People who want to start their own small businesses like it because they’re no longer tied to their employer plans, but have another insurance option available, she said.

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic Raleigh polling firm, said Tuesday that the race is a tossup and that Hagan needs “a change of topic from Obamacare” to get her approval rating up. The latest survey found 39 percent of voters approve of her, compared with 49 percent who disapprove, and the unpopularity of the health law appears to be driving the discontent. Hagan also is trailing all of her potential GOP opponents by 1 or 2 points.

Hagan knows she will have a tough time in some parts of the state.

“I was down in eastern North Carolina this weekend talking to farmers,” she said, noting she voted successfully to keep crop insurance for tobacco farmers in the farm bill.

She also was part of a push that made the Obama administration drop a plan to take a cut from the final tobacco buyout payment this year.

Hagan said she spent part of every summer as a girl on the tobacco farm in Chesterfield, S.C., about six miles south of the North Carolina border. Her father grew up there during the Depression in a home without indoor plumbing. She worked during the summer on her grandparents’ farm, helping with the watermelon, soybeans and tobacco crops.

“They’d bring in the tobacco leaf and I would pick it up and hand it to the stringer as they would put it in the tobacco barn,” she said. “And it was hot. Farmers work incredibly, incredibly hard.”

Her own work as a senator and that of her constituent services staff, she said, will make a difference in the campaign. Hagan said that she has closed 26,000 cases for North Carolina constituents on everything from mortgage problems to federal taxes, veterans’ issues, Social Security and visas.

“Once you really affect people’s lives that way, they talk,” she said. “They tell their neighbors. They tell their friends. And the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity, they’re not there on the ground,” she said, referring to David and Charles Koch, the oil billionaires behind Koch Industries of Kansas, and their tax-exempt conservative political group which has been behind a series ads against Hagan and other Democrats.

Americans for Prosperity have run $6.7 million in ads against her, including some in North Carolina that criticized Obamacare but didn’t name Hagan, according to media buys tracked by the Democratic Party. Combinedwith other outside group money, more than $7 million has been spent against her.

Meanwhile, the Senate Majority PAC has spent $1.06 million for Hagan. National business groups also back her, including the National Association of Realtors, which recently has sent out fliers in Raleigh with pro-Hagan messages.

Six Republicans are expected to seek the nomination to oppose Hagan. Of one of them, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, Hagan said she’d tie him to the record of General Assembly in the past year of Republican control of state government.

For example, she said, “$500 million being cut from education, our teachers being 46th in the nation in teacher pay, 48th in the nation in North Carolina per pupil spending. And we’ve always been the progressive southern state where public education is at the forefront.

“I think the contrast is going to be about who’s buying the seat, what the special interests want, and why they’re willing to put $7 million to date in this race.”

On other issues:

Minimum wage: The current $7.25 per hour is too low, forcing many people to work two jobs and struggle to buy food, Hagan said. But she said she wasn’t sure yet if she agreed with Obama’s call for a raise to $10.10.

Poverty: Job training is the main way out, she said.

Partisan gridlock: “The most frustrating thing.”

Hagan said she has worked with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on a bill to lower the tax on repatriated company profits and with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to restore tuition assistance for military personnel.

“I am here to get things done,” she said. “I don’t care whose idea it is.”

By Renee Schoof
McClatchy Washington Bureau