North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate race hits the Charlotte area Thursday with appearances by every candidate, a cameo by a top GOP strategist and a protest that underscores underlying tensions in the party.
Then on Friday, a Republican House panel will hold a rare field hearing in Gastonia that could give all the candidates more ammunition in their fight to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.
The title of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing suggests it won’t help Hagan and other Democrats who supported the Affordable Care Act. It’s called “ObamaCare Implementation: Sticker Shock of Increased Premiums.”
“Kay Hagan’s going to have another bad week,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Washington-based Cook Political Report. “Health care will continue to be in the news. Her opponents will be in the news. And there’s not a lot she can do about it.”
So far health care is shaping up to be a defining issue in North Carolina’s 2014 race, one of a handful that Republicans are counting on in their bid for the six seats they need for control of the Senate.
The health care law appears to have already hurt Hagan’s standing with voters, according to one recent poll. Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found voters who disapprove of her jumped from 39 percent to 49 percent over the past two months. That parallels a rise in President Barack Obama’s unpopularity not only among North Carolinavoters but nationally.
Though Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, has supported the president’s plan, last week she asked for an investigation of its botched rollout. She’s also co-sponsoring a bill that would let Americans keep their current coverage.
“Kay is working on sensible fixes to this law to make it work better for North Carolinians,” said spokeswoman Sadie Weiner. “But the special interests’ and her opponents’ only plan is to take us back to when people got dropped from their plans when they got sick, and women could be charged more than men for coverage.”
Establishment v. anti-establishment
The five Republican Senate candidates have all hammered Hagan over her support of the health care law.
Four – Cary physician Greg Brannon, Winston-Salem broadcaster Bill Flynn, Wilkes County nurse Heather Grant and Charlotte pastor Mark Harris – are scheduled to appear Thursday night at a meeting sponsored by the Tea Party of Greater Gaston.
House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, meanwhile, hosts a noon fundraiser at Bank of America Stadium with former White House adviser Karl Rove. Rove has angered many conservatives by promising to help Republicans nominate candidates electable in a general election, and a protest is planned during his appearance.
“We’re just protesting Karl Rove mainly because of the things he’s said about grassroots candidates, and trying to blame some of our losses strictly on tea party candidates,” said Chuck Suter, a self-described tea party activist organizing Thursday’s protest.
That could rub off on Tillis.
Jennifer Stepp, president of the Gaston tea party group, said tea partiers want “the most conservative person we can (get) who believes in the principles of smaller government, limited and responsible spending and adhering to constitutional principles.”
“If the establishment GOP is on board with us, fine; if they’re not, fine,” she said. “Obviously Thom Tillis is the GOP establishment’s choice.”
Tillis enjoyed a wide fundraising lead over his rivals through September, raising over $800,000. Donating to his campaign were political action committees representing top congressional officials including House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and three other Republican senators.
But this fall Tillis took positions at odds with his Washington supporters. For example, he said he would have voted against the compromise that extended the federal debt ceiling and ended the government shutdown. In that, he sided with his main GOP rivals.
Brannon has cast himself as the tea party favorite, even getting the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Harris, who just stepped down as president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, hopes to appeal to small-government conservatives as well as evangelicals.
Health care an issue
This month’s PPP poll suggested that health care, specifically Obamacare, could be a ripe issue for all Republicans.
It showed 48 percent of North Carolina voters disapprove of the Affordable Care Act, compared to 38 percent who approve. And nearly seven voters in 10 said its rollout hasn’t been successful.
Last month, the conservative Americans for Prosperity launched a $1.6million TV ad campaign criticizing Hagan over her support of the law. This month The Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group, went up with ads defending Hagan.
Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer said Hagan has reason to distance herself from the law’s faulty rollout.
“Hagan has to almost set herself apart for what has turned out to be … a fiasco,” he said. “She rode in on Obama’s coattails. Now she has to be concerned about his negative coattails.”
Hagan was elected in 2008, the year Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state in three decades. She actually out-polled Obama by more than 100,000 votes.
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