Since it’s never too early to speculate about the 2014 U.S. Senate election here, I’ve decided to start out with a number of plausible candidates and my thoughts on each of them.

Senate pro-tem Phil Berger – Berger never seemed like a likely candidate, but his actions in the past sessions of the legislature has resulted in increased speculation about his future.  If both Tillis and Berger run, that would make for a very interesting legislative session, with both leaders trying to outfox the other.  Berger maintains that he has no interest in the Senate, and that might be the case.  It’s worth noting that both Hagan and Berger represented parts of Guilford County.

Representative Renee Ellmers – Ellmers has a number of good qualities, first and foremost being that she’s a woman.  When is the last time a male candidate defeated an incumbent woman candidate, statewide?  Try never.  (Note: I would love confirmation if this is, in fact, the case.)  She is on good terms with the national GOP establishment and it is conceivable that they would give her the nod.  Ellmers’ problem is with Tea Party groups, who feel betrayed by her close ties with the GOP leadership.

Representative-elect George Holding – Holding is being mentioned as a Senate candidate even though he still isn’t a member of Congress. Positives: strong fundraising capabilities, blank slate for most voters. Negatives: Would be a freshman representative running for Senate. If he makes the race, he should stress the same themes from his House campaign and avoid any socially conservative positions that may be perceived as extreme.

Representative Patrick McHenry – Patrick McHenry has been in Congress since 2005, but this is the first time a Senate seat has opened up for him.  If McHenry wants to risk his safe House seat, then a Senate victory is not inconceivable.  But, everything would have to break his way.  A horrible midterm election for the Democrats is a must.  McHenry has a lot of baggage and has a reputation as a GOP attack dog, which works well in the 10th district but would be difficult to translate into a statewide victory – especially in an election that will be decided by moderate, suburban women.

Speaker Thom Tillis – No candidate has been more transparent in their ambitions for higher office than Thom Tillis.  Although Tillis has the modern profile for a successful U.S. Senate candidacy in North Carolina, there are many obstacles in his path.  First, Tea Party groups are not impressed with him, fairly or not.  He definitely needs to improve his reputation among the more conservative elements in the state.  At the same time, focusing on red meat conservative issues could cause voters to sour on the legislature, and Tillis.  Even with all these potential landmines, Tillis looks set on running.

There are other prominent Republicans who may run who are in the legislature or in the private sector.  But these, for now, are the candidates to watch out for.

Kay Hagan has a middling approval rating and is not well-established in her Senate seat.  This would suggest that she would be vulnerable.  But she has several assets: though she is a loyal Democrat, she does not come across as a moonbat liberal.  Like Burr in 2010, anonymity has not helped her, but it has not hurt her either.  Finally, there is the issue of her gender.  Women have a strong advantage in statewide races.  An arch conservative can still win statewide in North Carolina.  But running against a moderate woman will make that difficult, even in a wave election.  Whoever the Republicans nominate will have to appeal to the average woman swing voter in the suburbs.  It goes without saying that extremely strident stands against abortion or gay marriage will not be helpful.

There is still a long, long way to go until the 2014 race.  We have no idea what sort of issues will determine the outcome of that election.  But Republicans have a number of candidates who can make the run.  With a strong candidate, a smart campaign, and a little luck, unseating Kay Hagan is a definite possibility.

One last word on this race: no U.S. Senator from North Carolina has won an election with more than 55% since 1974.  No matter what happens, the race is likely to be competitive and may be the seat that decides control of the U.S. Senate.

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