Former Senator Kay Hagan died yesterday. Since 2016, she suffered from the results of a debilitating tick-borne illness that left her with limited speech and mobility. A long term resident of Greensboro, she was 66 years old.
Hagan was born in Shelby but grew up in Florida where her uncle, Lawton Chiles, served as Governor and US Senator. Chiles had a big influence on her career, serving as a mentor when she was young and helping launch her first state senate campaign. A lawyer and banker, she epitomized the business-friendly approach of Southern Democrats in the post-Civil Rights Era. She also fit the mold of North Carolina’s US Senator of the past 50 years—a business moderate who would win her seat in a hard fought battle and lose it after just one term in a similarly difficult campaign.
Hagan may have been born into a political family but she learned the nuts-and-bolts of campaigns under the tutalage of former Governor Jim Hunt and former Senate President Pro-tem Marc Basnight. She served as Hunt’s Guilford County coordinator in the 1990s and ran her first campaign under direction of Basnight’s caucus program which was professionalizing legislative campaigns in the state. She learned the importance of raising money and using modern campaign tools to craft and drive her message.
In the Senate, she became one of Basnight’s chief lieutenants, serving as co-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
When Washington Democrats started looking for someone to challenge incumbent Senator Elizabeth Dole in the lead up to 2008, they reached out to Hagan. At first, she demurred, but when they were still searching in the fall and Senator Chuck Shumer guaranteed his support and the money that would come with it, she entered the race in October 2007.
She faced a primary from Jim Neal, North Carolina’s first openly gay candidate for US Senate. Hagan had the backing of the political establishment in both Washington and North Carolina. With a well-funded campaign, she ran as if she were the nominee, rarely mentioning Neal or appearing on stages with him.
While she won handily in the May primary, the campaign gave a glimpse of Democratic politics to come. Hagan’s campaign was staffed with political professionals who today are in top positions on presidential campaigns. Neal’s campaign boosted the activist wing of the party that fought Amendment One and gives the party its energy today.
In the general election, Hagan faced Liddy Dole, a Republican political rock star who had grown up in Salisbury but spent her adult life living in Washington, DC. She served in almost every Republican presidential administration and she was head of the Red Cross. She was also married to former Kansas Senator and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole.
Using Dole’s biography as a foil, Hagan defined Dole as a Washington insider who was out of touch with North Carolinians. Dole didn’t help herself when she announced she and Bob would be “vacationing” in the state. Dole ended the campaign with a desperate ad attacking Hagan because she attended a fundraiser where atheists were present. Republican consultant Alex Castallano blasted the ad on CNN saying,“When you’re making ads that say, ‘There is no God,’ it usually means your campaign doesn’t have a prayer.” Hagan won by nine points.
Hagan entered the US Senate with a filibuster-proof majority, a Democratic president and a quickly deteriorating economy. She supported the Affordable Care Act, giving Democrats the narrowest of victories. However, she opposed the DREAM Act, angering progressives in the state. Overall, though, her tenure was fairly noncontroversial and she was known for working across the aisle.
In 2014, she faced NC House Speaker Thom Tillis in her re-election campaign. The race became the most expensive Senate campaign in North Carolina history and the most expensive of 2014. Despite a rising GOP tide, Hagan kept the campaign focused on Tillis and his record on North Carolina schools for much of the race. Late breaking news about the ebola virus and ISIS beheading Americans shifted the narrative and Tillis edged her out by under two points in the closest Senate race in the country.
Hagan is survived by her husband, three children and a host of campaign workers who cut their teeth on two of the most competitive US Senate campaigns of the past decade.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >