A U.S. Senate race with national stakes is taking shape in North Carolina, with one Republican jumping in, one bowing out and a handful of others waiting in the wings.
Theyre aiming at Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, one of the GOPs top targets in 2014.
Shes one of seven Democratic senators in states carried last year by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Republicans call them the Red State 7.
If its not the Number One race, its top three for sure, says Kevin McLaughlin, senior advisor to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. North Carolina is very, very ripe for the picking.
This weekend several announced and would-be candidates are expected to attend the state GOP convention, which begins Friday at the Charlotte Convention Center.
Delegates will hear nationally prominent speakers, including former presidential adviser Karl Rove, ex-U.S. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.
The convention will showcase several Senate hopefuls in a race that, for Republicans, could be key to control of Congress. The GOP already controls the House.
If the Republicans are able to take out Kay Hagan they could come close to recapturing a majority in the U.S. Senate, says Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist. So North Carolina will continue to be a battleground.
Front-runner pulls out
Last week saw a flurry of developments in the race.
Labor Secretary Cherie Berry, a leader in early polls, announced she wont run.
House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius said he would, ending months of speculation and becoming the second candidate after tea party loyalist Greg Brannon of Cary to declare.
And supporters of Charlotte pastor Mark Harris formed a draft committee after what one called an electrified gathering of 150 supporters in Greensboro. The president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina says hell undertake a statewide listening tour before deciding whether to run.
State Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden says he plans to decide by the end of July, after the legislative session.
Right now, he says, Im just not there.
And U.S. Reps. Renee Ellmers of Dunn and Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk say theyre still considering it.
Despite Republican optimism, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report lists the race as leaning Democratic. But Senate analyst Jennifer Duffy says that could change.
When Hagan was elected in 2008, she had Barack Obamas campaign helping attract voters, including huge numbers of traditionally Democratic African-Americans. And Hagan faced an incumbent in Elizabeth Dole who found herself on the defensive.
Shes vulnerable, Duffy says of Hagan. I dont think shes been well defined because the 2008 race wasnt about her. It was all about Dole.
In 2012, North Carolina not only went for went for Romney but elected Republican Pat McCrory governor and gave the GOP super-majorities in the General Assembly.
Last week a poll for the conservative Civitas Institute found Hagan trailing a generic Republican candidate 44 percent to 42 percent among registered voters, though the margin of error was 4 percentage points.
However, a survey last month by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Hagan leading all but one likely GOP challenger. The exception: Cherie Berry.
Tillis, Berger cite records
The same poll showed no potential Republican candidates with more than 15 percent support, and Tillis with 6 percent.
Ive got a lot of work to do in terms of name recognition, Tillis says. But I feel weve got a good baseline to build on, and Im very optimistic that we will.
He says hed run on the record of a conservative, Republican-controlled legislature that cut spending and taxes and launched a sweeping tax reform. Weve come in and weve had a very successful session, he says. Weve done what we said we were going to do.
Like Tillis, Berger would run on his record. I feel pretty good at this point that there are a lot of things wed said wed do that weve done, and a lot of things we said wed put in motion that we put in motion, he says.
Previewing a likely Democratic response, state party spokesman Ben Ray alluded to legislative cuts in unemployment benefits, rejection of Medicaid expansion and other actions that critics say will hurt the poor and middle class.
If Thom Tillis and Phil Berger want to run on their record, Im happy for them to do it, Ray says. Theyre going to be held responsible for that. These guys have made a mess in Raleigh, and theyd make a bigger mess in Washington, D.C.
Tillis and Berger might be the potentially best-financed candidates. Each tapped broad fundraising networks to raise around $1.7 million during the last election, spending most of it to help elect Republican lawmakers.
In addition, Tillis supporters also formed a super PAC last month. It can raise and spend unlimited amounts on his behalf.
In March, McCrory headlined a fundraiser for Tillis at Charlottes Myers Park Country Club. The event raised money for House GOP candidates, but many of the blue-chip hosts are Tillis supporters.
Harris, the Baptist minister, says hes out to see if theres a grass-roots uprising in the state. Hes confident that could trump big money.
Theres no doubt financing would be important, he says. But its important to understand that elections are decided at the ballot box. A lot of the decision Im making is based on, is there a grass-roots uprising in this state?