In the lead up to her re-election campaign, U. S. Senator Kay Hagan has been firmly staking out moderate ground. Last week, she was one of four Democrats to vote against the Senate budget and she joined with a Republican colleague to protect tuition assistance for active duty service members.  She has consistently focused on her bipartisan work on behalf of military families and veterans. In a state like North Carolina, defining herself as a moderate is probably a smart move.

That said, Hagan is walking a fine line. While she can’t afford to alienate middle-of-the-road voters, she also can’t afford to alienate her base. So far, she has been coy on gay marriage, gun control and the current immigration debate, though she voted against the DREAM Act in 2010. In addition, she angered environmentalists by signing a letter urging President Obama to support the XL pipeline. Combined, these positions leave Hagan’s progressive base little to cheer about.

Too often in recent elections, North Carolina Democrats have defined themselves on narrow issues instead of broad themes. They have worried more about potential attacks than what voters think they stand for. In a state with 9.5% unemployment, her stance on the pipeline probably makes sense; dodging gay marriage and immigration reform probably do not. Voters for whom those are defining issues are activists and partisans and she needs supporters firmly on her side.

At one time, “solidify your base first” was a tenet of politics 101. However, in the 1990s Bill Clinton and North Carolina legislators won elections using “triangulation,” or taking ideas from both the left and right and owning the middle. Hagan learned to win that way but the political landscape has shifted. The electorate is far more polarized and the middle is increasingly shrinking. 

Before Hagan focuses on winning a narrow middle, she needs secure the support of her base. The 2014 election will be a low turnout election in North Carolina where her race may be the only competitive one on the ballot. If progressives don’t show up, she might have a difficult time finding enough votes in the middle to make up the difference.

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