Commentary

Christensen: Little-known Hagan just a cork in the ocean

rchristensen@newsobserver.comNovember 30, 2013 

There is a reason that Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan should now be nervous about her re-election chances to the U.S. Senate and not just because you can hardly turn on your TV without seeing her hammered by another ad financed by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers.

Hagan’s polling numbers have taken a steep dive in recent weeks, as the problems surrounding President Barack Obama’s health care plan have surfaced.

In fact, Hagan has been sort of like a cork, floating in an ocean – her popularity rising and falling based on the political waves in Raleigh and Washington.

When Republicans were criticized for the federal government shutdown, Hagan’s numbers went up. As Democrats are criticized for the health care rollout, Hagan’s numbers go down.

During her five years in the Senate, Hagan has not carved out a strong brand or image for herself.

Part of Hagan’s problem is that she is a political moderate and is an extremely cautious, scripted politician who goes out of her way not to say anything provocative. A banker/lawyer, Hagan avoids the national TV talk shows and champions issues that all 100 senators also call their own – jobs, veterans affairs and constituent services.

The same is true for Republican Sen. Richard Burr. North Carolina voters have the fuzziest views of their senators of any state in the country, according to a survey by Public Policy Polling.

“I think both U.S. senators are kind of amorphous in a way,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College.

Because voters don’t have a firm opinion of Hagan, external political winds have a particularly strong impact on her.

The Jim Hunt appeal

When she was elected in 2008 to the Senate, Hagan was not well-known.

She was elected in part, on Obama’s coattails and because Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole was seen as not having paid sufficient attention to the state.

Having been helped by Obama in 2008, Hagan and other Democrats could be damaged by Obama in 2014.

That is not to say she doesn’t have her own political assets – she is smart, hard-working, spends a lot of time in the state, and has been able to thread the needle between business interests and the more liberal elements of her party. Philosophically, she is Jim Hunt in a skirt.

Until a month ago, Hagan was regarded as the front-runner. She was polling double-digit leads over her prospective Republican opponents, in large part because of the unpopularity of the state Republican legislature and then the shutdown of the federal government.

The health care link

But her numbers began to crater when the roll out of new health care program ran into technical problems and when it became clear that Obama’s promise that everyone could keep their insurance policy was not correct.

She is polling even with her prospective Republican opponents – even little-known ones such as Heather Grant, a nurse practitioner from North Wilkesboro.

Hagan is not alone. The numbers for other Democratic senators facing tough re-elections such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas also have been tanking.

In an effort to define her early, Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group started by Charles and David Koch, have already spent $2.3 million in advertising in North Carolina tying Hagan to the Affordable Care Act.

If the Koch brothers succeed, Hagan and the health law will forever be linked in the public’s minds.

There are two things that could help Hagan. One is another government shutdown, for which voters blame Republicans. The other is if legislators, who return in May, again press a tea party agenda and turn off many middle-of-the-road voters.

“I think her fate is is going to be determined by the political climate rather than anything to do with herself,” pollster Tom Jensen said. “I think that is exactly why there has been so much fluctuation in her numbers this year.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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