Can Kay Hagan Beat the One-Term Curse in North Carolina?
Policy + Politics

Can Kay Hagan Beat the One-Term Curse in North Carolina?

For more than four decades, voters in North Carolina have shown little patience for senators not named Jesse Helms. When sitting Sen. Richard Burr was reelected in 2010, he became the first senator from the Tar Heel State other than Helms to win a second term since Samuel James Ervin, Jr. in 1972. 

The list of political careers that have died in a North Carolina Senate race is long: Sens. Elizabeth Dole, Lauch Faircloth, Terry Sanford, Robert Burren Morgan, and Jim Broyhill all served single terms before being ousted by voters. Former presidential candidate John Edwards decided not to seek reelection in order to focus on a 2008 White House run, but there was widespread belief that he wouldn’t have been reelected anyway. 

Related: All Eyes on Alaska: Meet the Senate’s Most Vulnerable Democrat 

Now comes Kay Hagan, the one-term senator who ousted Dole in 2008 and is locked in a tight race against State Rep. Thom Tillis, the speaker of North Carolina’s House of Representatives. 

Hagan, who was leading in the polls coming into the final month of the campaign, has seen her lead gradually deteriorate, with the two most recent polls showing a tie and a 1-point advantage to Tillis, respectively. 

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC)
Hagan, an attorney by training who worked in the banking industry before turning to politics, was elected to the State Senate in 1998, and survived a statewide redistricting to be reelected from a different district in 2002. Hagan’s unexpected defeat of Elizabeth Dole by 8.5 percentage points in 2008 was due, in part, to a large Democratic turnout in the state for Barack Obama. In an interesting bit of political trivia, Hagan is the niece of Lawton Chiles, the former U.S. senator and governor of Florida. 

NC State Rep. Thom Tillis (R), Speaker of the NC House of Representatives
Tillis is a businessman who came late to politics, and who brings an interesting personal story to the race. After high school, Tillis bypassed college and plunged immediately into the working world making partner at the prestigious accounting firm Price Waterhouse before he finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland. Until his race against Hagan, Tillis had never been pitted directly against a Democrat in a competitive election. He defeated a Republican incumbent in a primary before running unopposed in his first race for the North Carolina State Assembly, and was likewise unopposed in the following three elections. He is now in his second term as Speaker of the House. 

Related: 9 Senate Races That Will Change the Balance of Power 

Hagan has pounded Tillis for helping the state legislature slash funding for education, and has been backed up by the DSCC, which has spent much of the money it dedicated to the campaign on amplifying the message that Tillis is anti-education. Hagan has also focused on women’s issues, including birth control, and on Tillis’ role in declining to expand Medicaid in North Carolina under the Affordable Care Act. 

Tillis has spent much of his time and money trying to tie Hagan to the unpopular Affordable Care Act, which she supported. He has also tried to paint her as an ineffective and irresponsible representative of her state by highlighting the fact that she has missed committee hearings for various reasons, including her attendance at political fundraisers. 

Related: All Eyes on Alaska: Meet the Senate’s Most Vulnerable Democrat 

Like most incumbents, Hagan had handily outraised her opponent at the end of the most recent reporting period, with $16.7 million in campaign funds compared to Tillis’ $4.8 million. And while Tillis had spent the majority of his funds at that point, leaving him only $1.5 million in cash on hand, Hagan still had most of her money, $8.7 million, on hand. 

Senate candidates were required to file their third quarter disclosures on Wednesday, but because they inexplicably deliver the filings on paper rather than – like every other candidate – electronically, the details may not be available for a week or more.

When it comes to outside spending, Hagan had benefited from a huge push from the national Democratic Party. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has pumped $5.6 million into the race, and the Senate Majority PAC has given $10 million. Tillis, though, is not without powerful support. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has given $3.7 million, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce $3.8 million, and the Carolina Rising 501c and National Rifle Association have delivered $3.2 apiece. 

Related: Democrats See a Glimmer of Hope in New Senate Polls 


Polling - North Carolina Senate Race
Poll Date Hagan (D) Tillis (R)
RCP Average 9/20 - 10/12 45.1 43.6 Hagan + 1.5
SurveyUSA 10/9 - 10/12 45 46 Tillis + 1
High Point* 9/30 - 10/9 40 40 Tie
USA Today/Suffolk* 10/4 - 10/7 47 45 Hagan + 2
Rasmussen Reports 10/6 - 10/7 48 46 Hagan + 2
NBC News/Marist* 9/27 - 10/1 44 40 Hagan + 4
Source: Real Clear Politics

The wildcard in this race is a pizza deliveryman named Sean Haugh, who also happens to be the Libertarian Party’s candidate for Senate. Haugh, who shows up to interviews in a T-shirt and schedules them at a donut shop because he has no campaign headquarters, may not seem like a serious candidate, but he is currently polling at between 4 and 7 percent of the vote, or several times the margin separating Hagan and Tillis. Most of his support comes from voters who would likely back Tillis if they had no other choice, so just how seriously North Carolinians decide to take Haugh will have a major impact on the outcome of this race. 

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