Talk already is growing among Democrats in Washington and North Carolina about who will challenge Republican Sen. Richard Burr in what’s expected to be another hotly contested and politically pivotal campaign in the Tar Heel State next year.
North Carolina’s place in the political spotlight is guaranteed, both as a state presidential candidates will try hard to win and because it’s expected to have one of the nation’s tightest races for governor. But who will run against Burr as he seeks a third six-year Senate term on Capitol Hill?
Democrats say that former Sen. Kay Hagan, who lost narrowly to Republican Thom Tillis in 2014 in one of the nation’s most expensive and closest Senate races, has the first right of refusal for seeking the seat.. With the highest name recognition and a hefty Rolodex of potential donors, Hagan isn’t likely to have to worry about any serious Democratic primary challengers.
Her decision-making is a political topic now as summer nears. Hagan spent the past few months as a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. The semester ended this month, freeing her to concentrate on what’s next.
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Democratic turnout is higher in presidential election years, meaning 2016 will be better territory for Hagan than 2014, when she lost by just 2 percent of the vote. National Journal, the Washington political news outlet, reported on Monday that Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, had a meeting with Hagan in April and was coaxing her to run again.
Other Democrats agree it makes sense.
Among potential candidates, “first and foremost is Kay Hagan,” said Raleigh-based Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson.
“She showed the ability just last year and over the last couple years to run an extremely well-disciplined campaign, to raise more money than anybody thought was possible for a Senate race in North Carolina and to spend it wisely,” he said. “And she had a narrow loss in a very difficult year for Democrats. She’s a natural.”
But others say her loss last year to Tillis will hurt.
“If she wants to run again, I want to know what she’s going to do differently,” said Marc Friedland, the former chairman of the Mecklenburg County Democrats.
National Democrats are in discussions with other potential candidates in case Hagan decides the time isn’t right. Among them is state Sen. Dan Blue in Wake County, the Democratic leader in the legislative session.
Blue said he hasn’t given a possible U.S. Senate campaign any serious thought, at least not yet.
“Right now I’m focused on these legislative races and that’s where my energy has gone,” he said, but added, “I haven’t ruled anything out.”
Whoever runs will have to commit during the summer, before the fall election season begins, Blue said.
The right candidate for Democrats, he said, is someone who “captures the hopes and aspirations of the middle class working people of this state” and “understands the investments in education and infrastructure” that have contributed to the state’s growth in the past 25 years.
“By September we'll need somebody firmly on board who knows what they’re going to do,” Blue said.
North Carolina’s population makeup and close election results would seem to ensure that its politics will be extremely competitive for years to come and that it will remain a prized swing state in presidential elections. Each party’s presidential nominees will frequent the state, with their presence presumably aiding the respective Senate nominees.
“North Carolina was home to one of the closest Senate campaigns in the country last year, and we expect that the 2016 Senate race will be just as competitive,” said Sadie Weiner, the national press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a former Hagan campaign aide.
She said Burr will have to defend his votes against increasing the minimum wage and blocking a bill to let students refinance their student loan debt, and others.
Burr has gained national prominence this year with his new role as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Democrats say they’ll attack him by claiming he’s done little on economic issues that impact people’s lives.
Republicans see a very competitive race, and Burr in good shape.
“Burr is perfectly positioned,” said Marc Rotterman, a Republican media strategist in Raleigh. “Foreign policy, ISIS (the Islamic State) and national security are at the top of people’s agenda,” he said. “People are paying attention.”
Early polling numbers show both Burr and Hagan have low approval ratings.
Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning survey, reported in April that 36 percent of voters surveyed approved of how Burr was doing his job, but 37 percent disapproved and 27 percent weren’t sure.
Those numbers, PPP said at the time, mean Burr is “very much in the danger zone for an incumbent. The question is just whether Democrats will get a strong enough candidate to give him a real challenge.”
Hagan’s voter approval numbers were low as well. PPP said 37 percent of voters see her positively, and 53 percent negatively. Ten percent were unsure.
Support for Burr polled at 50 percent, compared to 38 percent for Hagan. He also had double-digit leads over other potential Democratic contenders who were tested in the poll: Blue, former U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, North Carolina state Treasurer Janet Cowell, state Rep. Grier Martin of Raleigh and state Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte.
But it’s early.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said the closeness of Hagan’s loss to Tillis matters.
“North Carolina is a more Democratic state in a presidential year, and last year was one of the worst Democrats have had in many years,” he said, noting that 2016 “will certainly be a better one, maybe even a much, much better one. If you almost made it in 2014, you’re in pretty good shape for 2016.”
Still, it remains to be seen if Hagan wants to go through the rigors of another hard-fought campaign so soon. And she isn’t saying yet.
2016 U.S. Senate race
Senators are elected for six-year terms. The races are staggered. About one-third of all 100 U.S. senators are up for election every two years.
North Carolina U.S. Senate elections past:
2014: Thom Tillis (R) 48.82 percent; Kay Hagan (D) 47.26 percent
2010: Richard Burr (R) 54.81 percent; Elaine Marshall (D) 43.05 percent
2008: Hagan, 52.65 percent; Elizabeth Dole (R), 44.18 percent.
2004: Burr, 51.6 percent; Erskine Bowles (D), 47.02 percent.
Sources: North Carolina State Board of Elections, Federal Election Commission