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How the GOP could make Hagan’s day

By Taylor Batten
tbatten@charlotteobserver.com
Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

Election Day 2014 is 17 months away, but if I were in charge of U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s reelection campaign, I’d be losing sleep already.

Of the 35 Senate seats on the ballot next year, Hagan, a Democrat, is probably the third most vulnerable incumbent. She rode into office in 2008 on Barack Obama’s coattails and the most fired-up Democratic base North Carolina had seen in decades. Republicans have dominated here ever since, taking the legislature in 2010 and backing Republicans Pat McCrory and Mitt Romney last year.

As Republicans calculate how to pick up the six seats they need to seize control of the Senate, every scenario hinges on taking Hagan’s. That means the Republican nominee can expect to benefit from millions of dollars of outside spending.

The GOP has reason to be optimistic. A poll this month by the Civitas Institute showed Hagan trailing 44-42 to a generic Republican.

But that’s the question: Will the party nominate a generic Republican? Their failure to do so could be Hagan’s biggest hope.

Principle over politics, still?

Republicans lately have shown a knack for seizing defeat from the jaws of victory. In 2010, they nominated tea party favorites such as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada over “establishment” candidates. In 2012, they backed Richard Mourdock over longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana and Todd Akin to take on Claire McCaskill in Missouri. All four lost to Democrats in the general election. Tea party candidates did win some seats in recent years, but not in swing states like those.

That should be a warning for N.C. Republicans. There are few states more “purple” than North Carolina. Obama’s 14,000-vote victory over John McCain here was the country’s closest, and Romney’s narrow defeat of Obama last year made North Carolina the nation’s third-closest race. The state’s fastest-growing group in voter registration? Not Democrats, not Republicans. Independents.

Nominate a serious-minded centrist, and Republicans could have Hagan on the ropes. Nominate a Richard Mourdock type, and hear the champagne corks popping in the Hagan camp.

Surely Republicans realize this. No?

“Part of being a tea party candidate, it’s principle over politics,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “They’d rather stick to their principles and lose than compromise and win. I’m wondering what it’s going to take” to get past that and start capitalizing on winnable seats.

Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s strategist, was in Charlotte Saturday night for the N.C. Republican Party convention. After Republicans’ disappointing performance last fall, Rove said the party needed to nominate more moderates, and the Republican National Committee concluded the party needed to broaden its message. Bob Dole said last month that he doesn’t think he, Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan could be successful in today’s Republican Party.

The reaction from the most vocal conservatives to all that was predictably negative. But the party ignores that advice, at least in centrist North Carolina, at its own peril.

A fresh chance to define themselves

The Republican primary is May 6, 2014, and the field is still taking shape. House Speaker Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County is in. So is tea partier Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician. Among those said to be considering a run: U.S. Reps. Renee Ellmers and Virginia Foxx; Baptist minister Mark Harris of Charlotte; Raleigh businessman Jim Cain; and state Senate leader Phil Berger.

Not one is well-known by most voters. That gives them a fresh chance to define themselves, or for Hagan to define them first. My guess is they’re currently judging how far right they want to veer for the primary and whether tacking back toward the center for the general election is shrewd or selling out.

Longtime Republican strategist Jack Hawke thinks the nominee will have to appeal to the middle to win. But he’s not sure positions on issues matter most. He recalls Tom Ellis, another Republican strategist, saying most campaigns are determined by “who has the most teeth and the most hair.”

And, Hawke would add, who is most likable. Hawke advised McCrory last year, and said opponents wanted McCrory to lose his temper in public. “I’d walk him to the podium, whispering in his ear, ‘Put a smile on your face, relax your body language, be happy, don’t let ’em get to you.’ So that’s part of it.”

Teeth, hair and a likable personality. But first, a moderate view of the world.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tbatten1.
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