Under the Dome

Morning Memo: Senate races heats up this week

North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate race heats up Thursday with appearances by every candidate in the Charlotte area, a cameo by a top GOP strategist and a protest that underscores underlying tensions in the party, Jim Morrill reports.

Then on Friday, a Republican House panel will hold a rare field hearing in Gastonia that could give all the candidates more ammunition in their fight to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. The title of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing suggests it won’t help Hagan and other Democrats who supported the Affordable Care Act. It’s called “ObamaCare Implementation: Sticker Shock of Increased Premiums.”

“Kay Hagan’s going to have another bad week,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Washington-based Cook Political Report. “Health care will continue to be in the news. Her opponents will be in the news. And there’s not a lot she can do about it.”

So far health care is shaping up to be a defining issue in North Carolina’s 2014 race, one of a handful that Republicans are counting on in their bid for the six seats they need for control of the Senate.

*** Get a link to the story and more news on the North Carolina Senate race below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

TODAY IN POLITICS: Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos will help hang a portrait of the late Gov. Jim Holshouser at 2 p.m. in the Office of Rural Health and Community Care, which is located in the Cooke Building on the Governor Morehead School campus.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Dunn Republican, will appear on Fox News at approximately 10:25 a.m. to talk about the federal health care law troubles.

McCRORY TO PRESENT STATE HONORS: AP -- The state's highest civilian honor will be presented to six North Carolinians for their outstanding service in science, fine arts, literature and public service.

The North Carolina Awards are scheduled to be presented Thursday in Durham, with the science award going to Dr. Myron S. Cohen of Chapel Hill for his HIV/AIDS research. The fine arts award goes to John Cram of Asheville and the literature award to John M.H. Hart Jr. of Keswick, Va. Three men will receive public service awards: Dr. John Harding Lucas of Durham, Philip J. Kirk Jr. of Raleigh and Walt Wolfram of Cary.

Gov. Pat McCrory will present the awards at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Convention Center in Durham. The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources administers the awards.

MORE ON FRIDAY'S CONGRESSIONAL HEARING IN GASTONIA: Five North Carolina residents, including two insurance agents, a roofing contractor and the director of a nonprofit agency, are scheduled to testify Friday at a U.S. congressional hearing in Gastonia about the Affordable Care Act.

The local hearing is the first in a series of field hearings for members of Congress who want to take a closer look at how the new health care law is affecting people at home.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a critic of the Obama administration, will bring the full House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to the Gaston County Courthouse, 325 North Marietta St., for the hearing starting at 10 a.m.

Witnesses scheduled so far include Dan Waters, president of Dan Waters & Associates, a Hickory insurance agency; Joel Long, president of GSM Services, a commercial roofing and HVAC company in Gastonia; Tav Gauss, CEO of Action Group Human Resources Solutions, a staffing firm with multiple offices statewide; Sherry Overby, director of the Belmont Crisis Pregnancy Center, and Jason Falls, owner of Falls Insurance in Kings Mountain. Read more here.

THE SENATE GOP PRIMARY IN A NUTSHELL -- On the same night, Four candidates try to appeal to tea party while Tillis raises money with Karl Rove: Four – Cary physician Greg Brannon, Winston-Salem broadcaster Bill Flynn, Wilkes County nurse Heather Grant and Charlotte pastor Mark Harris – are scheduled to appear Thursday night at a meeting sponsored by the Tea Party of Greater Gaston.

House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, meanwhile, hosts a noon fundraiser at Bank of America Stadium with former White House adviser Karl Rove. Rove has angered many conservatives by promising to help Republicans nominate candidates electable in a general election, and a protest is planned during his appearance.

“We’re just protesting Karl Rove mainly because of the things he’s said about grassroots candidates, and trying to blame some of our losses strictly on tea party candidates,” said Chuck Suter, a self-described tea party activist organizing Thursday’s protest.

That could rub off on Tillis.

Jennifer Stepp, president of the Gaston tea party group, said tea partiers want “the most conservative person we can (get) who believes in the principles of smaller government, limited and responsible spending and adhering to constitutional principles.”

“If the establishment GOP is on board with us, fine; if they’re not, fine,” she said. “Obviously Thom Tillis is the GOP establishment’s choice.” Read more here.

MORE #NCSEN RACE -- Facing what-she-knew and when-she-knew it questions on the federal health care law, Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan is pointing the finger back at insurance companies. From today's story:

On Wednesday, Hagan's office responded by saying that it was the insurance companies who weren’t being upfront.

“It wasn’t clear – and it’s very disappointing – that for the last three years insurance companies continued to sell plans that didn’t meet the basic standards of the law and didn’t tell consumers that those plans would be canceled,” Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said in a statement. Read more here.

TILLIS CAMP RELEASES MORE LAWMAKER ENDORSEMENTS: On the list -- Sens. Harry Brown, Jim Davis, Fletcher Hartsell, Brent Jackson, Bill Rabon, Bob Rucho and Jeff Tarte. Also, Reps. John Bell, Rick Catlin, Leo Daughtry, Ted Davis, John Faircloth, Jon Hardister, Frank Iler, Tim Moore, Phil Shepard and Roger West.

ANOTHER McCRORY APPOINTEE QUESTIONED: Democratic state Rep. Verla Insko said Wednesday that (Bryan) Gossage’s (DENR) appointment is part of a broader problem in the McCrory administration. “There is a pattern across state government of appointing people who are contributors and people who worked in the campaign,” said Insko, who serves on the House Environment Committee. “But there are only so many slots for people, so they don’t always get put into slots where they have experience.”

DEPUTY DIRECTOR TO LEAVE: On Wednesday, DENR confirmed that Beth McGee recently announced she will retire this year from her post as the deputy director of the clean water fund, where she worked under Gossage. Holden said McGee made a personal decision that didn’t related to the reorganization. She had 28 years experience.

GOSSAGE IS WELL CONNECTED: Beyond his wife’s employment in the governor’s office, state Rep. Tom Murry sent an email recommending Gossage for his first administration job to Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker, the lawmaker acknowledged Wednesday. Murry, a Republican whose former legislative assistant is McCrory’s sister, is chairman of the House commerce committee.

Gossage, a Republican, lost a 2008 bid for the House seat Murry later won in 2010. The two are friends and Murry donated money and helped Gossage campaign for Apex Mayor in 2011, a race he lost by a wide margin.

Murry’s wife is also listed as a health and wellness writer for the network of online news websites Gossage managed as publisher and editor. The websites, such as the Wake County Times, frequently featured stories naming Tom Murry in a favorable light. The news websites have not been updated since May, when Gossage took his first government post. Read more here.

MORE COVERAGE OF GOV. McCRORY'S VOTER ID REMARKS: From the Huffington Post -- challenging McCrory's accuracy on a few of his claims . Read more here. From the Rachel Maddow Show -- looking at the “compacted the calendar” line. Read more here .

BERGER ANNOUNCES CONGRESSIONAL BID: From AP's Gary Robertson -- The son of North Carolina state Senate leader Phil Berger formally announced his bid for Congress on Wednesday, promising that if elected in 2014, he will follow a path in Washington similar to the one his father and other Republicans have walked in Raleigh.

Phil Berger Jr. began a tour of the 6th Congressional District with his kickoff announcement at a charter school in his home of Rockingham County before heading to Alamance County. He said if elected, he would fight "liberal overreach" in Washington and work to repeal President Obama's health care law.

"We can't let the guy who broke our health care system try to fix it. That doesn't make any sense," Berger said inside the Graham Soda Shop, across the street from the Alamance County courthouse. "Obamacare needs to be gone, removed and repealed."

BUT WON'T TALK ABOUT SHUTDOWN: Beyond health care, Berger didn't mention other policy details in his stump speech, deflecting questions later on another potential government shutdown in mid-January. But he accused Obama of ignoring the Constitution and trampling on the rights of citizens. He did not elaborate. Read more here.

COUNTY DSS DROPPED EARLIER COMPLAINT IN ABUSE CASE: A 2012 sheriff’s department complaint involving a Union County boy found begging for food at a neighbor’s home was dismissed by the local Department of Social Services after it says it failed to find sufficient signs of abuse or neglect.

That complaint involved Wanda Larson, one of the agency’s top child-protection supervisors, and the boy who was under her legal care.

Last Friday, Larson and her longtime boyfriend were arrested after the youth, now 11, was found handcuffed to their front porch, a dead chicken tied around his neck. She and Dorian Harper, 57, remained jailed Wednesday on child abuse and related charges. Read more here.

OBAMA HONORS DEAN SMITH: ... Of all the honors Smith has won, and they are many, the one he received in absentia Wednesday represented what really matters to him. Not basketball, but life. Not a game, but the lessons that game can teach. The North Carolina coach was a champion on the court and a leader in the community, a man for whom the fight in defense of equality was more important than any defense on the court.

“Dean Smith is one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history, but his successes go far beyond Xs and Os,” President Barack Obama said, and indeed they do.

It is an extremely cruel twist of fate that denied Smith the chance to enjoy this moment in person, as he so surely would have. The degenerative brain disorder that has robbed Smith of the extraordinary mind that made him such an extraordinary person also kept him from attending Wednesday’s ceremony. Read more here.

REMEMBERING JFK: Columnist Barry Saunders writes that JFK's assasination is still very real for some. Read more here.