Democrats had hoped to turn North Carolina into a frontline political battleground in 2014 and to capitalize on national liberal outrage at a Republican-led state government that has enacted one of the most sweeping conservative reform agendas in the country. But those efforts have been stymied by the disastrous effects of one of the most sweeping liberal reforms in recent memory: Obamacare.
North Carolina’s conservative successes in 2013 — on issues such as taxes and regulatory, education, and election reform — elicited howls of outrage on the left, even prompting an editorial from the New York Times lamenting the state’s “decline” and accusing the Republican legislature of “tearing down years of progress” achieved under Democratic control. Liberal activist groups cheered on as “Moral Monday” protesters organized a series of rallies outside the state capitol and as Republican governor Pat McCrory’s approval rating steadily declined.
Incumbent Democratic U.S. senator Kay Hagan would like nothing more than to make her 2014 reelection bid all about the “extremist” GOP lawmakers running the Tar Heel State, especially given that Thom Tillis, the Republican considered most likely to be her opponent, is speaker of North Carolina’s House of Representatives and one of the architects of that conservative reform agenda.
“I think when you look at this race, what takes place in 2014, it’s about a contrast: It’s about what I’ve done in Washington versus what has taken place in the Republican-controlled Legislature,” Hagan told Politico in December. “They have really been focusing on fringe issues and on policies that work against the middle-class families.”
Meanwhile, Hagan’s fundraising pitches are constantly obsessing over liberal bogeymen such as Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. From a December fundraising e-mail: “Citizens United opened the door to millions of dollars in special interest spending. And special interest insiders like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers ran straight through them, spending money on attacks and smears like it’s their job.” Another December e-mail reminds potential donors that she opposed “the budget plan that Paul Ryan and out-of-touch Tea Partiers . . . jammed through the House” back in March 2013.
A more likely scenario for Hagan is that public dissatisfaction with Obamacare, a law she supported and continues to back, however hesitantly, will be the overriding issue in November, and if that’s the case, Democrats should be worried.
Hagan’s approval rating has been underwater since the Obamacare exchanges launched in October, 49 percent disapproving of the job she’s doing, compared with just 43 percent who approve, according to a December survey from Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling. Compared with a similar survey taken in September, Hagan’s approval rating is unchanged, but her disapproval rating has spiked 10 points, almost certainly a result of dissatisfaction with Obamacare.
The law has already forced nearly half a million North Carolina residents off their existing health-care plans, despite Hagan’s repeated promises that “if you like your plan, you can keep it,” which recently won PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” award for 2013. After leading all potential Republican opponents in previous polls, Hagan is currently running even with them.
“The problem Democrats have is that Obamacare is sucking up most of the air in the room,” says John Hood, president and chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh-based think tank. “It’s just a more compelling story, a much more powerful issue that is affecting people personally and getting much heavier media coverage.”
Hood observes that since the Obamacare launch in October, state Democrats’ early optimism regarding Hagan’s reelection prospects has shifted to a “cautious pessimism” that is directly attributable to Obamacare. That is why, in addition to their efforts to frame the race around state issues, Democrats are hoping that Tillis either loses the GOP primary to a conservative challenger who may be less viable politically or emerges from the primary badly damaged.
“Some Democrats have convinced themselves Republicans are going to do what they did in Missouri or Colorado,” Hood says, referring to states where Republicans appeared to squander winnable Senate races by nominating unpalatable candidates. “I think they’re going to be disappointed.” For one, it is going to be hard for Tillis’s opponents to legitimately challenge him from the right, given his success in implementing long-sought conservative reforms at the state level, though it won’t stop them from trying.
Dee Stewart, a Republican strategist based in Raleigh, says Democrats have failed to grasp the extent of Obamacare’s negative impact on voters, which far outweighs that of anything passed by Republicans at the state level. “As long as Obamacare stays in the news, and as long as Republicans field a credible candidate, it’s going to be a very uphill climb for Kay Hagan,” he says. “I don’t sense that Democrats are quite as concerned as they ought to be.”
Even if Hagan is able to make the Republican legislature a focal point of her campaign against Tillis, or whoever wins the GOP nomination, it’s unclear how beneficial that would be politically, beyond rallying the liberal base. Francis De Luca, president of the state’s free-market Civitas Institute, notes that many of the supposedly controversial reforms approved by the state government in 2013, such as new voter-ID requirements, are popular with voters, especially when polled individually. The state’s economy is growing faster than the national average, and the unemployment rate has fallen sharply since 2012. Governor McCrory’s approval numbers are starting to recover.
Hagan is trying to become the first North Carolina Democrat in more than 40 years to win a second term in the U.S. Senate. It would be a lot easier if voting for Obamacare were not the signature accomplishment of her first term.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.