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Democratic consultant Thomas Mills argues on his PoliticsNC blog that Kay Hagan is making it very hard for liberals to be excited about her candidacy in 2014. Instead, she’s made many votes that have angered progressives. Most recently, she voted against the budget proposed by Senate Democrats. She has been tight-lipped on issues like gun control and gay marriage, and in 2010 she was one of a handful of Democrats to vote against the Dream Act. She’s also asked President Obama to open up the Keystone pipeline, angering environmentalists.

For the most part, Hagan has been pursuing a strategy to make herself as inoffensive as possible. (Richard Burr pursued a similar strategy.) While this won’t endear her to progressives, there’s some evidence that it could help her reelection. In the latest PPP poll, her approval rating is rightside up and she leads all of her Republican contenders by double-digits. There aren’t too many people who love Kay Hagan, but there aren’t many who hate her either. And in a moderate state like North Carolina, being perceived as a moderate doesn’t hurt. (This is not to say that North Carolina is packed full of moderate voters. This is not the case at all. North Carolina is a state polarized between liberals and conservatives, but ‘purple’ politically and therefore perceived as moderate.) Mills notes that the political middle is shrinking and the ‘triangulation’ strategy has become obsolete.

Hagan’s position is also complicated by the uncertain 2014 election environment. It’s almost certain that the 2014 electorate will be whiter, older, and more conservative than last year’s presidential electorate. This makes it even more essential that Hagan be perceived as a centrist. Paradoxically, it also makes it more important that liberals have a reason to turn out for her. This wouldn’t be a problem if Hagan was running in a presidential year. But in 2014, without a presidential race to vote on, liberals could be shrugging their shoulders. They might as well just stay home.

How does Hagan secure the vote of her liberal base, while at the same time upholding her image as a centrist? It would be most helpful if she were to face off against an objectionable challenger, someone who is just anathema to liberals. Often, one’s enemies inspire more passion than one’s friends. While Hagan’s positions on the issues might not bring liberals to the polls, the prospect of Thom Tillis or Phil Berger in the Senate might do so.

The identity of the Repbulican candidate is the biggest X factor in the upcoming Senate race. The question is, will Hagan get the opponent she wants?

John Wynne is the “conservative voice” at PoliticsNC, where he also provides polling analysis and commentary on legislative campaigns. When not writing about politics, he enjoys gardening and listening to opera. Contact: johncwynne@gmail.com.

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