Is Hagan the Most Vulnerable Senator in 2014?

Survey USA just released confirming data for Public Policy Polling’s long-term consistent findings about the North Carolina Senate race.

Every month, PPP surveys the Tar Heel State mainly because they are a Raleigh-based company. For more than a year, the survey research firm has been forecasting that first-term Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is positioned in the mid to low 40s, sometimes leading her largely unknown Republican opponents by a point or two, other times trailing them by similar margins.

Now, Survey USA tested the NC electorate and found an almost identical result, thus lending more evidence to support the analysis saying that Sen. Hagan is highly endangered for re-election.

According to S-USA (March 27-31; 1,930 registered North Carolina voters for the job approval question; 1,489 respondents for the ballot test questions; 433 likely Republican primary voters), Sen. Hagan trails the entire Republican field. She performs best against NC House Speaker Thom Tillis, down only 45-46 percent. The senator falls two points behind nurse Heather Grant, former Shelby mayor, Ted Alexander (44-46 percent), and physician Greg Brannon (45-47 percent). The deficit worsens to 43-47 percent when paired with Charlotte pastor Mark Harris. Obviously, all of these scores are within the polling margin of error. In further bad news for the incumbent, Hagan’s job approval ratio is a poor 38:50 percent favorable to unfavorable.

But the muddled Republican primary brings some good news for the vulnerable senator. As has been the case since the beginning of the cycle, there is no clear GOP leader and the chances of forcing a secondary July 15 run-off remain very high. Under North Carolina election law, a nomination is won outright if an individual exceeds 40 percent of the primary vote. If all contenders are below the 40 percent threshold, then the top two finishers advance to the run-off.

Seeing the Republican nomination process tied in knots until mid-summer would definitely help Hagan solidify her support and take advantage of the split within the Republican base. Chances are also good that the eventual GOP nominee, after needing to spend significant resources to qualify for a run-off campaign, will have a cash shortage at the beginning of the official general election period. Therefore, Hagan will have the opportunity to immediately begin crafting a negative image of her opponent at a very point in time when the latter will have difficulty responding.

On the negative side for the senator, outside organizations, led by Americans for Prosperity, a group committed to spending millions of dollars on negative ads publicizing Hagan’s vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, will continue to pound the senator and neutralizing what post-run-off advantage she might possess.
Additionally, this will be the first time Hagan will be on the statewide ballot without President Obama leading the ticket. Obama’s ability to drive minority turnout was a huge help in 2008 when she defeated then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R), but it remains to be seen if such a high percentage of these groups will participate in a midterm election without his motivating presence.

The Survey USA data confirms that Sen. Hagan is in poor re-election position. Trailing opponents who have low name ID and languishing in the low 40 percentile range, as this poll projects, normally spells doom for any incumbent. An elongated, divisive, and frayed Republican nomination process would help Hagan, but irrespective of the GOP outcome, the North Carolina incumbent may well be the most vulnerable senator in the country.

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