Hagan’s Decision Leaves Democrats With Few Options in North Carolina

With the former senator passing on a chance to run again, Democrats’ list of potential candidates looks dangerously thin.

CARY, NC - NOVEMBER 03: Incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) speaks to members of the media during a visit at her campaign office November 3, 2014 in Cary, North Carolina. Senator Hagan is facing challenge from Republican candidate and Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives Thom Tillis for her seat in the U.S. Senate.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
June 24, 2015, 1 a.m.

Kay Hagan wasn’t ne­ces­sar­ily the best pos­sible can­did­ate Demo­crats could have run for Sen­ate in North Car­o­lina next year. But the former sen­at­or was the most plaus­ible one. And now that she will not run—a de­cision she re­vealed this week in phone calls to sup­port­ers and former staffers—Demo­crat­ic lead­ers turn to the awk­ward pro­pos­i­tion of try­ing to re­cruit a hand­ful of al­tern­at­ives who had already in­dic­ated they wer­en’t in­ter­ested.

If the party fails to change their minds (and there’s real fear among some Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials that they won’t be suc­cess­ful), it might not be able to field a cred­ible nom­in­ee in a ma­jor swing-state Sen­ate race in 2016.

There’s a reas­on why Demo­crat­ic Party bosses like Sen. Chuck Schu­mer were so keen to re­cruit Hagan for 2016 in the first place, just months after she lost her seat in the 2014 elec­tion. That bruis­ing, failed reelec­tion cam­paign left a last­ing im­pres­sion on North Car­o­lina voters, and Hagan re­mained un­pop­u­lar in re­cent polls, to the point that Re­pub­lic­ans said they wel­comed a po­ten­tial race against her.

But Demo­crats thought Hagan had the right mix­ture of ex­per­i­ence and fun­drais­ing fire­power to knock off Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Richard Burr. With Hil­lary Clin­ton atop the tick­et and more fa­vor­able turnout in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion year, they figured she could over­come her own num­bers and de­feat an in­cum­bent with mid­dling ap­prov­al rat­ings of his own.

And just as im­port­antly, she had ex­pressed ser­i­ous in­terest in run­ning. Oth­ers had not.

In the af­ter­math of the Hagan news—first re­por­ted by Roll Call and con­firmed by Na­tion­al Journ­al—Demo­crat­ic strategists in Wash­ing­ton sug­ges­ted they had a long list of vi­able al­tern­at­ives the party could turn to.

“There are a lot of Demo­crats who can win this seat,” said one strategist with ties to the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “An­thony Foxx, Janet Cow­ell, Tom Ross, Heath Shuler, Josh Stein are all more than for­mid­able.”

But it’s not that simple. Many of them are seen, at least with­in North Car­o­lina, as un­likely to run for Sen­ate. Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary An­thony Foxx, for in­stance, is con­sidered by many party strategists to be the party’s strongest pos­sible nom­in­ee. The Afric­an-Amer­ic­an former may­or of Char­lotte has the kind of star power to drive lib­er­al turnout. But Foxx has an­nounced pub­licly, and told Burr per­son­ally, that he won’t run for Sen­ate. Josh Stein, an­oth­er rising star, is con­sidered highly un­likely to aban­don his run for at­tor­ney gen­er­al.

Of all the pos­sible al­tern­at­ives, state Treas­urer Janet Cow­ell is likely to re­ceive the most at­ten­tion in the com­ing weeks. A com­bin­a­tion of busi­ness back­ground and lib­er­al bona fides have made her pop­u­lar across the Demo­crat­ic Party, and she could draw sup­port from EMILY’s List’s stable of na­tion­al donors as a wo­man who sup­ports abor­tion rights.

But in April, Cow­ell an­nounced she would seek reelec­tion to her cur­rent po­s­i­tion, es­sen­tially tak­ing her­self out of con­sid­er­a­tion for the Sen­ate. Many Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials in the state are skep­tic­al she’d be in­ter­ested in a fed­er­al cam­paign.

There’s also Ross, the former Uni­versity of North Car­o­lina pres­id­ent, and Shuler, a former con­gress­man. Neither has ruled out a Sen­ate run—but neither has pub­licly com­mu­nic­ated in­terest in the race, either, nor do they cur­rently hold elec­ted of­fice.

Demo­crats are hope­ful they can re­prise re­cent Sen­ate his­tory and con­vince one of these pro­spects to jump in after all. Cory Gard­ner, ar­gu­ably the GOP’s best can­did­ate in 2014, ini­tially told Re­pub­lic­ans he wouldn’t run. In 2007, Hagan her­self passed on a bid be­fore chan­ging her mind.

Demo­crats hope that with a heavy­weight like Hagan out of the pic­ture, can­did­ates who once said no could sud­denly re­think their fu­tures. Some of them might even have high­er ceil­ings than Hagan, whose cam­paign ex­per­i­ence came with high un­fa­vor­able rat­ings.

“If Kay had run, she would have star­ted with high­er name ID and high­er neg­at­ives than Burr, which is not something nor­mally seen from a chal­lenger,” said one seni­or Demo­crat­ic strategist.

Demo­crats can also take solace in the fact that North Car­o­lina was nev­er likely to make or break a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity next year. Wis­con­sin, Illinois, New Hamp­shire, Flor­ida, and a hand­ful of oth­er states are all bet­ter bets for Demo­crats to gain the four seats they would need if they hold the pres­id­ency.

But without a top can­did­ate in a purple state like North Car­o­lina, Demo­crats might not be able chal­lenge Burr at all, and Hagan’s de­cision not to run may have all but erased one of the Demo­crats’ tar­get states from the 2016 map.

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