GOP has work to do to win Senate

First Posted: 4/9/2014

RALEIGH — In the eyes of national pundits, few 2014 races are as important as Sen. Kay Hagan’s re-election bid in North Carolina.

For Democrats to retain control of the U.S. Senate, they need to keep GOP gains to no more than five seats, which would leave the chamber split and Vice President Joe Biden — Leslie Knope’s dream date — the deciding vote.

Republicans will almost certainly pick up the seats in West Virginia and South Dakota. Their chances are also pretty good in Montana and Arkansas. The next-best race is in Louisiana, where Mary Landrieu’s re-election prospects are a bit less than 50-50. Assuming the GOP holds its two seats in play, Kentucky and Georgia, that would still leave the party a seat short. North Carolina is their best bet to get to six, with Michigan a close second.

Both sides know very well that control of the U.S. Senate may well be determined in the Tar Heel State. That’s why the political parties, as well as right-leaning and left-leaning independent groups, have already spent or reserved many millions of dollars in the North Carolina market.

The race is simply too uncertain to call at this point. But that isn’t keeping reckless pundits and nervous partisans from making forecasts.

Exuberant Democrats, for example, point out that the Republican field is crowded and many potential primary voters remained undecided as of late March. They assume/hope that House Speaker Thom Tillis, the frontrunner, can’t get to the 40 percent threshold to avoid a runoff. Forcing the GOP race into a runoff, they reason, will doom the eventual nominee in the General Election.

Obviously, the primary field is crowded and there are lots of undecided voters. But to say that many Republicans and GOP-leaning independents have no strong preference for the nomination is not to say that they don’t care about the Senate race. The polls reveal that these voters have a strong preference for defeating Hagan — far stronger than any allegiance they have to a particular GOP standard-bearer. I suspect that the vast majority will unify behind the nominee without much of a fuss.

As it happens, a high undecided count isn’t unique to the 2014 cycle. According to my rolling average of the five surveys released in the past two months, a little over a third of Republican primary voters are undecided. By comparison, the polls released in March 2008 showed that as many or more Democratic primary voters were undecided among Hagan, Jim Neal, and three lesser-known candidates. During the homestretch, however, Hagan was on the air in heavy rotation and Neal wasn’t. Hagan ended up winning 60 percent of the primary vote, then defeated U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole in the fall by a comfortable margin.

I’m not predicting that will happen with Tillis. He certainly could fall short of the 40 percent threshold. But he’s also going to benefit from heavy campaign and IE advertising during the next few weeks, so don’t assume too much here.

Furthermore, I’m not even convinced that a runoff primary, if necessary to pick a GOP nominee, will matter all that much in the General Election. It won’t pull Hagan’s ratings up. She’s at 37 percent approval/47 percent disapproval in my three-month rolling average. She’s in worse shape among North Carolina voters than are President Obama (43/51) and Gov. McCrory (40/46).

Given all this, then, exuberant Republicans see inevitable victory. That’s premature, as well. Hagan’s numbers are being pulled down by public disaffection with Obamacare, the pace of economic growth, and the president’s leadership on foreign and domestic issues. But by November, the subject of political conversation may have changed. Unforeseen national or international events could deflect current trends.

Moreover, North Carolina Democrats have a plan. If Tillis is the nominee, they’ll try to make the U.S. Senate race into a referendum on what’s happening in Raleigh, not in Washington. If Brannon is the nominee, they’ll emphasize Hagan’s comparative moderation. In either case, they’ll also lower the boom with personal attacks.

The Republicans can win the Hagan seat, and thus likely win control of the U.S. Senate. But they’ll have to work for it.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.