Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan faces challenges from several Republican candidates who are vying for a seat on the Senate.
Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan faces challenges from several Republican candidates who are vying for a seat on the Senate.

The North Carolina Senate race heats up early as Republican primary candidates scramble for Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan’s seat.

Hagan, the junior senator from North Carolina, faces challenge from Republican candidates after the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, which Hagan endorsed. Polls show that the unpopularity of the health care law has taken a toll on Hagan’s chance of re-election, with Public Policy Polling finding a 10-point surge in Hagan’s disapproval rating since the rollout of healthcare.gov. Republican opposition is seeking to make the Affordable Care Act a centerpiece issue of the midterm elections but Democrats are intent on drawing voters’ attention to Hagan’s strong legislative record.

“This election isn’t just about the one issue,” said Sadie Weiner, campaign communications director for Senator Hagan. “This election is going to be about the contrast between Kay’s record of working for the best interest of the state and Republicans’ record of working for special interest.”

Hagan’s challengers in the GOP Senate primary include current Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives Thom Tillis, Tea Party candidate Greg Brannon and Heather Grant, (R) a nurse. According to a Jan. 14 poll from Public Policy Polling, Tillis is currently considered the favored Republican candidate with a 19 percent lead, but Brannon is gaining momentum with a recent endorsement from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Both Brannon and Grant lead with 11 percent.

Baptist minister Mark Harris (R) leads with 8 percent and recently received an endorsement from former Republican presidential candidate and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Radio host Bill Flynn (R) and Dr. Edward Kryn are also in the race to unseat Hagan.

John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University professor of political science, noted that the outcome of the Republican primary will have a significant impact on Hagan’s chances of re-election.

“One of the things that could work out well is that the Republican primary could end up extremely divisive,” Aldrich said. “It could become a bloodbath. That would give her a big advantage.”

Hagan’s record of support for the Affordable Care Act has served as a rallying point of attack for Republican challengers. A Tillis campaign attack ad launches next week with a $300,000 buy, noting Hagan's involvement with the passage of the health care law. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, began their campaign against Hagan last October, with an attack ad criticizing Hagan for supporting the Affordable Care Act.

Theodore Hicks, chairman of the Durham County Republican Party, cited Hagan’s ties to the Affordable Care Act as the focus of current Durham Republican Party strategy.

“The message is that Obamacare is massively unpopular, and it’s simply not working,” Hicks said. “Kay Hagan supported Obamacare, and if you’re not happy with the law, you need to vote her out of office.”

Weiner said Republican opposition is using the Affordable Care Act as a foil to distract voters from critical issues.

“They can’t defend their disastrous voting record in Raleigh, so they want to distract from that record,” Weiner said. “They don’t have a single plan to make health care work better.”

David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science, noted that GOP legislative record in North Carolina could hurt the party candidates’ campaigns.

“The Republican legislative record hasn’t been all that popular,” Rohde said. “If Tillis is the candidate—he’s one of the leaders of the legislature—they’re going to hang that record around his neck.”

Although Hagan continues to support the Affordable Care Act, she has co-sponsored a bill that would allow people to keep their current health care policy and continues to work on improving the law, Weiner said.

“Kay is trying to make sure this law works for North Carolinians,” Weiner said. “What she doesn’t do is what all the Republicans in this race want to do—repeal all the good parts of the plan.”

The North Carolina Democratic Party is focusing on Hagan’s favorable voting record on unemployment insurance, employment non-discrimination and education. Micah Beasley, NCDP press secretary, highlighted Hagan’s record of promoting college affordability and criticized Republicans’ voting record on education in the North Carolina legislature.

“Whoever emerges from the Republican field will have to defend a dismal record of gutting education spending which has increased tuition and classroom sizes across North Carolina and made it harder for students to vote,” Beasley wrote in an email Thursday.

Outside groups have spent at least $9.7 million in attack ads and campaign contributions, making the North Carolina senate race the current most expensive Senate race of 2014. Americans for Prosperity alone reportedly spent $4.2 million on ads.

Races for North Carolina Senate seats are reputed for being historically competitive. Political experts anticipate the Senate race results to be a toss-up.

“She’s in a position where her position has always been competitive, so she would always be in a competitive circumstance,” Aldrich said. “She has the advantage of being the incumbent, but the state is slightly more red than blue, which works against her. So it’s up for grabs.”

Junior Diego Quezada, president of the Duke Democrats, said that the club will be working to promote Hagan’s campaign later in the Spring semester by making sure students are registered to vote and coordinating rides to voting stations.

Senior Taylor Imperiale, president of the Duke College Republicans, said that it was too early for the club to make a decision about who to support, but that any Republican candidate would provide a strong challenge.

“Whoever the Republican candidate is, they will give Senator Hagan a run for her money,” Imperiale said.