2014 GOP Senate field sees Hagan’s seat as a top target

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comJune 2, 2013 

  • Possible 2014 GOP lineup

    People who have announced for the U.S. Senate or have been mentioned as candidates.

    Thom Tillis: IN

    52, Cornelius; Second and last term as N.C. House Speaker; former management consultant who last week became first major GOP candidate in the race.

    Greg Brannon: IN

    Cary; Obstetrician and tea party Republican was first to announce.

    Mark Harris: CONSIDERING

    47, Charlotte; First Baptist Church pastor; president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina; a leader of 2010 campaign for Amendment One. Embarking on 2-3 month “listening tour.”

    Phil Berger: CONSIDERING

    60, Eden; Second session as N.C. Senate GOP leader; led caucus to enact first version of legislative budget while pushing sweeping changes in the state tax code. Expects to decide on race by end of July.

  • More information

    State GOP convention

    Starting Friday, North Carolina Republicans hold their state convention at the Charlotte Convention Center. They’ll elect a new chairman, listen to prominent national Republicans and hear from elected leaders – and possible candidates. Highlights include:

    • Friday: 7 p.m., Governor’s Reception featuring former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts and former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown.

    • Saturday: Noon, luncheon with former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; 2 p.m. business meeting and chairman election; 7 p.m., dinner at the Westin Charlotte hotel with Karl Rove.

  • Other possible candidates

    •  Jim Cain: 55, Raleigh; Lawyer, major fundraiser for George W. Bush, former ambassador to Denmark and former president of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.

    •  Renee Ellmers: 49, Dunn; An intensive-care nurse in second term as a member of the U.S. House; despite conservative voting record, targeted this year by the Club for Growth; expects to decide on Senate race this month.

    • Virginia Foxx: 69, Banner Elk; One-time dean at Appalachian State and now in U.S. House; one of the delegation’s most conservative voting records; has also drawn attention for controversial statements.

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.

They’re aiming at Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, one of the GOP’s top targets in 2014.

She’s one of seven Democratic senators in states carried last year by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Republicans call them the “Red State 7.”

“If it’s not the Number One race, it’s 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 won’t 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 he’ll 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, “I’m just not there.”

And U.S. Reps. Renee Ellmers of Dunn and Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk say they’re 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 Obama’s 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.

“She’s vulnerable,” Duffy says of Hagan. “I don’t think she’s been well defined because the 2008 race wasn’t 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.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of name recognition,” Tillis says. “But I feel we’ve got a good baseline to build on, and I’m very optimistic that we will.”

He says he’d run on the record of a conservative, Republican-controlled legislature that cut spending and taxes and launched a sweeping tax reform. “We’ve come in and we’ve had a very successful session,” he says. “We’ve 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 we’d said we’d do that we’ve done, and a lot of things we said we’d 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, I’m happy for them to do it,” Ray says. “They’re going to be held responsible for that. … These guys have made a mess in Raleigh, and they’d 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 Charlotte’s 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 he’s out to see if there’s a “grass-roots uprising” in the state. He’s confident that could trump big money.

“There’s no doubt financing would be important,” he says. “But it’s important to understand that elections are decided at the ballot box. A lot of the decision I’m making is based on, is there a grass-roots uprising in this state?”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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