GOP struggles for traction in pivotal North Carolina Senate race

Republicans activists are growing nervous about the party’s chances of upsetting North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan (D), a prime GOP target in a seat that could decide control of the Senate in 2015. 

The current Republican front-runner, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, is trailing Hagan in polling, despite the incumbent senator’s mediocre approval ratings in the GOP-leaning state. 

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Tillis has endured an uneven start to his campaign while other potential Republican candidates have also struggled to gain traction.

“As it currently stands, North Carolina is definitely what can put us over the top if we can win it. The problem Republicans are having in North Carolina is the GOP is desperately seeking a candidate primary voters will rally around,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.

“Right now they’re still shopping and are pretty divided,” O’Connell added. 

“But what should scare Republicans is, while Hagan’s numbers aren’t great, they’re improving.”

Republicans need to win a net of six seats for Senate control and are currently favored to pick up three. Unless they can score upsets in Iowa or Michigan, they will need to defeat three of four Democrats from red states. Some analysts contend North Carolina will be the decisive race. 

Hagan, a freshman, isn’t very well-known in the state, according to polls, although she ran 100,000 votes ahead of Obama in 2008. 

A midterm election could prove more difficult. North Carolina leans Republican, especially during midterm elections when the state’s large African-American population turns out at lower levels.

Tillis officially announced his campaign at the end of May and spent the first six weeks of his campaign dealing with headlines about hot-button bills moving through the state Legislature. 

The legislation included one to increase sales taxes while lowering corporate taxes and a 20-week abortion ban that drew noisy protests from Democrats and their allies.

“It was a bad first month as a candidate, and it’s due to what’s going on in the Legislature,” O’Connell said.

When Tillis headed to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday for a series of fundraisers — missing a floor debate over major tax reforms as well as a controversial gun resolution — he was criticized by some local newspapers for skipping out on his job.

Tillis’s time in the Statehouse also meant he had less time to fundraise. 

He raised a respectable $300,000 in the first month of the campaign. But his tally was dwarfed by the $2.2 million Hagan raised in the last fundraising quarter. 

The senator now has $4.2 million in the bank for the race.

Republicans argue the bills Tillis shepherded through the Legislature make it clear he can get things done, something voters are looking for in a Senate candidate. 

They’re also not worried about fundraising, arguing Tillis has strong connections to donors and will have more time to fundraise in the future. 

But they’re eager for the legislative session to end so he can focus on the campaign.

“It’s important that he get out of session, gets his campaign up and running, and gets the fundraising going,” said one Republican strategist closely following the race.

Hagan leads Tillis by 11 points — 49 percent to 38 percent — in a survey released Wednesday by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, even though more voters say they held a negative than positive view of the Democrat’s performance.

Republicans say the poll’s sample is skewed too Democratic and liberal. Earlier polls from PPP with more balanced samples of voters found Tillis within 5 and 7 percentage points of Hagan. 

That most recent PPP poll showed a highly unsettled GOP primary field. 

Tillis was in sixth place in a “kitchen sink” poll of numerous Republican leaders who hadn’t ruled out races (though many are unlikely to run). 

A ballot test with Tillis, North Carolina state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R) and Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), who isn’t expected to run, found the three statistically tied.

Conservative Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) led PPP’s primary poll, but many Republicans don’t expect she’ll run.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) recently sent an official to North Carolina to meet with Tillis and Tea Party-affiliated Dr. Greg Brannon (R), who is also in the race. 

The NRSC official also met with Berger and Charlotte-area Rev. Mark Harris, both of whom have been seriously considering runs.

Officials from the NRSC say the trip was about gathering information and building relationships with all potential candidates, not about recruiting anyone into the race.

NRSC Communications Director Brad Dayspring said the GOP remains confident of a win. 

“Democrats are going to conduct the nastiest, most destructive campaign imaginable in North Carolina, but nothing can change the fact that Kay Hagan has been the least relevant, least effective and least productive senator not only in Washington since her arrival, but in North Carolina’s recent history,” Dayspring said. 

There are other challenges for Republicans. 

A crowded primary field could deplete resources and make it harder for the little-known GOP candidates to introduce themselves to voters before the general election onslaught of negative advertising kicks in.

Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the GOP’s struggles in North Carolina have created a “really helpful dynamic” for Hagan. 

 “Republicans don’t have their act together, and Sen. Hagan has clearly built an incredibly strong organization, made some incredible hires, raised tremendous resources,” said Canter. 

“Republicans don’t have a candidate yet and may not have a candidate for a very long time, and whoever the candidate is going to be is going to have to spend a long time pandering to the far right to get over their primary hurdle.”

Hagan’s campaign is confident it can help boost her image as an independent as the campaign wears on.

“North Carolinians know that Kay is on their side, working every day to give their values a voice in Washington,” said Preston Elliott, Hagan’s campaign manager.