On Election Day 2012, Kay Hagan became the most vulnerable U.S. senator in the country. While Democrats elsewhere were celebrating Barack Obama's re-election, in North Carolina they took a beating. Republicans gained control of the governor's mansion for the first time in 20 years, and Mitt Romney edged out Obama for the state's 15 electoral votes. Republicans declared the president's 2008 victory here a fluke.
They were salivating over an easy pick up that would take North Carolina out of play in the 2016 presidential election. Instead, they walked into a dogfight that drained precious resources and gave GOP strategists heartburn. Their hand-picked candidate, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, didn’t put Hagan down until the final days of a year-long campaign.
Tillis won the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history; the campaigns and outside groups spent more than $100 million on the contest. More than 100,000 political ads ran in North Carolina this election cycle, the most of any Senate race. And the state is relatively evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and independent voters.
In other words, North Carolina is the country's most competitive state.
But 2014 might have been just a preview of what's to come. In 2016, besides GOP Senator Richard Burr's reelection bid, the state will have competitive gubernatorial and presidential contests.
In fact, the race for governor has already started. Three-term Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has all but announced that he's challenging one-term Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Cooper made the case for his candidacy in a Huffington Post piece last October and has been criticizing the governor for more than a year. And he may face a primary. Durham attorney Ken Spaulding says he's running, but has yet to garner much support; former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker has also been making noises about a run.
McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, was elected as a moderate but rubber-stamped legislation that took the state hard to the right in 2013. He signed into law measures designed to make voting more difficult; rejected Medicaid expansion, denying health care to as many 500,000 North Carolinians; signed a budget that reduced funding for public education by $500 million; and signed a restrictive abortion bill after promising he wouldn't.
McCrory's approval ratings have been underwater since the 2013 legislative session. To climb out of the hole, he's already starting to try to moderate his image. He announced last week that his administration is looking at expanding Medicaid.
But a lot of the same Democrats who showed up to defend Hagan this year will be out in force to oppose the governor in 2016. To keep his approval ratings from improving, the third-party groups may start beating on him sooner than later.
In the Senate race, the incumbent Burr will certainly start out as the favorite. He's won re-election once before and has kept a relatively low profile. While his record may read conservative, his persona looks moderate, and he doesn't yet have an opponent. The Democrats would prefer it to be Anthony Foxx, the Transportation secretary and former Charlotte mayor. But Foxx has said he won't challenge Burr because of the senator's support for his nomination to his current position.
State Treasurer Janet Cowell, another name Democrats mention, hasn't built much of a profile, but she's generally respected. She helped the state navigate the Great Recession with little damage to its investments. Before she's considered a contender, though, Cowell will have to prove that she can raise real money and put together a campaign organization.
Regardless of who decides to run, Democrats will have a tougher time coming after Burr as early as Republicans came after Hagan. Burr's not saddled with the baggage of the legislature that hurt Thom Tillis and it's far too soon to know what issues will be driving the electorate. However, with the GOP controlling both houses of Congress, look for cuts to Social Security and Medicare to figure prominently.
But the presidential race will have an outsized influence on the messaging of the Senate or gubernatorial races. North Carolina had the second-closest presidential race in both 2008 and 2012—Democrats won the former, Republicans the latter. 2016 will be a tie-breaker of sorts, a test of the Democratic coalition's strength. Republicans believe that Democrats stayed competitive because of an African-American turnout that might not return without Obama on the ticket. Democrats believe that changing demographics in the state are turning it bluer each election cycle.
After the hangover from the 2014 ad wars, North Carolinians just want a break from politics. They won't get much of one. The gubernatorial race will crank up when the legislature returns in January, speculation about Burr's opponent will start sooner than that, and we can expect a wave of presidential wannabes to start flooding the state in the coming months. Such is life in the nation's most competitive state.