U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan has spent the past months preparing for a tough general election, amassing several million dollars to aid her effort.
Campaign ads focus on the man expected to be her Republican challenger, House Speaker Thom Tillis, and his wealthy supporters, including the Koch brothers.
But Tillis faces a crowded primary and has yet to walk away with the race. Hagan, on the other hand, is expected to win the Democratic primary easily.
But she does, indeed, have challengers: two eastern North Carolina Democrats, a retired Army captain and a former carpenter who repairs computers.
The odds are stacked against them.
Hagan has a personal fortune and experience in politics dating back to her decade in the N.C. General Assembly as a state senator before she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008. She got an early taste of politics when her uncle, Lawton Chiles, was Florida’s governor and U.S. senator for the state.
Her challengers aren’t wealthy. One counts himself among those in poverty.
They also don’t have the huge campaign coffers that Hagan, one of the most successful fundraisers in the Senate, can use to get her message out. Hagan has raised $9.9 million so far for this election, according to a tally from federal records and campaign announcements by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Hagan also the advantage of the power of her office and her party’s backing in what’s expected to be a very tough race in one of the states that could determine whether Republicans take control of the Senate. In its battle to maintain the Democratic majority, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee plans to put North Carolina at the top of its efforts to get out the vote for Hagan.
Her supporters do not mention her Democratic rivals. Those two candidates, Ernest T. Reeves, 49, of Greenville and Will Stewart, 32, of Hampstead, have never before run for elected office. Still, both say they’d do a better job representing the concerns of North Carolinians who are poor or otherwise struggling to get by.
“I want to run to effect change across every city, every county, every municipality – and real change. There are a lot of people that are in need here in North Carolina,” Reeves said in an interview last week. “I want to represent the 10 million people here. I want to take a different voice to the Senate.”
Stewart said he’s poor himself and would be a voice for the working poor and middle-class people in Washington.
Standing up for women, poor
Reeves was born and grew up near Greenville, where he now lives after time away from the state in the Army and then in business.
He said he got interested in politics as a boy because of the friendship between his family and John P. East, an East Carolina University professor. East was a conservative Republican who was elected U.S. senator in 1980 and served one six-year term.
“My dad was a staunch Democrat, and East was a Republican, but the two respected each other,” Reeves said, adding that East encouraged him when he was a teenager.
Reeves enlisted in the Army in 1981 and became a communications officer, serving in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. While on active duty he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from St. Augustine’s College. He also served in the Pentagon and as an Army recruiter in Michigan in low-income neighborhoods from Flint to Detroit.
After he retired from the military he worked in management at United Airlines in Chicago before he returned to North Carolina in 2006.
“I’ll stand up for women’s rights and equal pay and unemployment insurance,” Reeves said. He also supports a minimum wage increase and extension of Medicaid in North Carolina.
Can’t afford to campaign
Stewart said he’s running because he felt politicians, including Hagan, serve corporate interests instead of representing their constituents.
He said he felt disenfranchised voters would relate to him.
“I’m pretty poor actually. I live well below poverty line,” he said.
He said he didn’t anticipate being “pretty much dismissed” by the news media.
“That’s why voters never really see the change they’re looking for,” he said.
Democrats snubbed him at their events, because they weren’t happy with opposition to Hagan, Stewart added.
And he said he can’t travel the state to shake hands and talk to voters because he can’t afford it.
Stewart lives with his girlfriend in a rented trailer on an acre of land in rural Hampstead, between Wilmington and Jacksonville. He said he started his repair business in a boarding house where a lot of crack addicts lived in Wilmington, after he saw that people in that neighborhood had a lot of broken computers.
“I have come a long way,” he said. He grew up mostly in rough neighborhoods of Columbus, Ohio. His mother was on welfare, and his father went to prison for murder when he was 14 or 15, he said. As a teenager, he was a troublemaker. At times, he was homeless.
“I’d bring a witness to the reality of living as a poor person in America,” he said. He said he’d also be “a witness of the effects of Capitol Hill’s decisions. I’ve watched friends and neighbors get foreclosed while Wall Street gets a walking pass.”
Hagan, he said, is a multimillionaire. Roll Call ranked her the 45th-wealthiest member of Congress in 2013 with a net worth of $8.06 million.
“I have not met anybody, at least not in North Carolina, that can relate to that at all,” Stewart said.
Stewart registered to vote for the first time in his mid-20s, when President Barack Obama ran in 2008. “He was different and he actually motivated me to vote,” he said.
Stewart supports decriminalization of marijuana, bringing U.S. soldiers home from war duties abroad and an end to the Patriot Act in order to restore privacy.