The late Senator Kay Hagan’s one term and two campaigns epitomized the volatility of North Carolina’s Senate races. They also showed how our Senate elections rise and fall with national political tides – and how North Carolinians view the offices of Senator and Governor very differently.
Hagan was an unlikely and unexpected Senate candidate in 2008. A state senator, she was recruited by leading Democrats after better-known prospects declined to take on incumbent Senator Elizabeth Dole.
Dole was a formidable challenge. She was a national figure. She served in the Cabinets of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She ran for President – briefly. She was married to Senator Bob Dole. She beat Erskine Bowles for the Senate seat in 2002. She replaced Jesse Helms, who had been in the Senate for 30 years, and she seemed set to stay there a while herself.
But Hagan won a bruising, expensive campaign. One Democratic group ran ads hinting that Senator Dole was too old. Dole’s campaign ran a last-minute ad suggesting that Hagan didn’t believe in God.
Hard-hitting ads have marked North Carolina’s Senate races since Helms won in 1972. His Congressional Club pioneered direct-mail fundraising and negative ads.
When Thom Tillis beat Hagan in 2014, it was the most expensive – and one of the roughest – races in the country. In 2020, even before what is sure to be a bitter and costly general election, Tillis faces a tough fight in the Republican primary. Carter Wrenn, who ran many of Helms’s campaign, is working for Tillis’s opponent, Garland Tucker.
For all the money and TV ads, North Carolina’s Senate races often track national politics.
Hagan won in a good Democratic year. Barack Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 – the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Democrat Beverly Perdue was elected the state’s first female Governor.
Hagan wasn’t so lucky in 2014. That was Obama’s second mid-term election, and Democrats lost their U.S. Senate majority.
It helps to be on the right side of a landslide.
Helms became North Carolina’s first Republican Senator in the 20th Century thanks to Richard Nixon’s landslide over George McGovern. Helms won his toughest reelection fight, over Governor Jim Hunt in 1984, when Reagan swamped Walter Mondale.
Helms won five Senate races, but since he retired in 2002 his old seat has changed parties in every election – first Dole, then Hagan and now Tillis.
Senator Richard Burr has won his seat three times – in 2004, 2010 and 2016. Each year, he had the national political winds with him. Before Burr, that seat changed hands – and parties – in 1974 (Democrat Robert Morgan), 1980 (Republican John East), 1986 (Democrat Terry Sanford), 1992 (Republican Lauch Faircloth) and 1998 (Democrat John Edwards).
Republicans have won 12 of the 16 Senate races since 1972. But Democrats have won eight of the 12 Governor’s races since 1972. Governor Jim Hunt won four of them.
Why the difference? It’s that voters look at the two offices very differently. We elect Governors to do good things in Raleigh, which favors Democrats. We elect Senators to stop bad things in Washington, which favors Republicans.
Our tendency is to elect Senator No and Governor Yes.
When Kay Hagan won in 2008, Obama’s slogan was “Yes we can.” When she lost in 2014, the mood was more “No we won’t.”
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.