Kay Hagan lost last year's Senate race in North Carolina in perhaps the most frustrating way possible, her cycle-long lead evaporating in the final moments thanks to factors beyond her campaign's control. That 2-point defeat to a man widely considered a weaker candidate still stings, Hagan's allies concede. But that's not stopping them from going after her again.
Democratic power brokers, including Chuck Schumer, are coaxing Hagan to run in 2016. And not just because they like her. Hagan might be the greatest chance the party has to reclaim that Senate seat, riding a wave that some strategists think will be in Democrats' favor thanks to Hillary Clinton sitting atop the national ticket and luring voters to the polls.
The best any of those recruiters can say, though, is that Hagan is seriously considering it. According to people close to her, the senator who suffered just months ago through a race in which both sides combined to spend more than $100 million hasn't made a decision. She hasn't even decided when that decision might come.
But she's not ruling it out, evidenced by the meeting she took in April with Schumer, the man who convinced her seven years ago to run the first time. Their sit-down last month ended with the Senate minority leader promising that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would commission a poll in North Carolina, testing the feasibility of Hagan's candidacy.
Since then, officials from the DSCC have talked with donors and party strategists, instructing them that it's time to start encouraging her to run. The former senator, whose fellowship at Harvard's Institute of Politics ended on May 8, has kept in contact with her old Hill staffers and, in a move that raised eyebrows in North Carolina, agreed to attend a Raleigh fundraiser in June for former colleagues in the state Senate.
To many of the state's top Democratic strategists, Hagan isn't just the top choice, she's the only choice. And that presumption has made for an unusual recruiting process. Unlike the relentless courtship of most prospective candidates, party leaders have kept their distance from Hagan for the last six months—acutely aware that last year's grueling and unsuccessful re-election campaign kicked off what would necessarily be a lengthy cooling-off period.
But as the calendar has turned toward summer, Hagan loyalists and Democratic leaders gradually re-initiated contact and starting the process of convincing her that she is their singular chance against Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
"If she doesn't run, we don't have anybody," warned Brad Crone, a veteran Democratic strategist in the state. It is a fear that is echoed throughout North Carolina.
"There's a big drop off after Hagan," said one of the former senator's donors. "She's got major-league stuff, and after that, we unfortunately have a bullpen full of double-A arms."
The difference between Hagan and possible alternatives comes down to money. North Carolina will feature the nation's most competitive gubernatorial election while also serving as a potential presidential battleground. So if donors aren't satisfied with the Democrats' pick to run for Senate, they could choose instead to invest in other races. What's more, the DSCC and other top donors will be hard-pressed to spend serious money in North Carolina during an election cycle in which the party has many opportunities in places such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New Hampshire.
"First thing you think about is, who has access to the resources to be competitive?" asked Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in the state. "And there's nobody who has put money together in the same stratosphere as Kay Hagan."
But for Democrats, putting all of their eggs in the Hagan basket comes with risks. Indeed, for all of the party's bluster about Hagan's ability to mount a serious and competitive campaign against Burr, she would begin as an underdog and have to show relatively quickly that the damage done to her in 2014 wouldn't carry over into 2016.
She ran one of the best campaigns of the midterm election, only to watch her small lead undone by the rise of ISIS, Ebola, and an altogether terrible political environment for Democrats. While many in the party view her narrow defeat to Republican Thom Tillis as a testament to a strong candidate, not a weak one, polls this year show that the campaign hurt Hagan's image—in one recent automated survey, a majority of adults held an unfavorable view of her. In a cycle in which Democrats have turned to many candidates who lost their last races, such as Russ Feingold in Wisconsin or Ted Strickland in Ohio, concern over Hagan might be the most acute because unlike that pair, her defeat came just last year.
"The good news is she has high name recognition," said Dan Blue III, former chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party. "The bad news is that name recognition does come with baggage."
Certainly there are Democrats who remain unconvinced that a Hagan candidacy is best. They argue that in a strong year nationally for the party that sees Clinton win North Carolina, even an untested newcomer could defeat Burr, whose own approval ratings aren't great.
But a newcomer might be hard to come by. Unlike many states, North Carolina has a handful of potentially strong Democratic candidates, though for one reason or another, deep skepticism abounds that any of them will jump into the race if Hagan doesn't.
State Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue Jr. (father to the former chair of the Wake County Democratic Party), for instance, is a well-respected longtime party leader, but he's 66 and seen as an unwilling fundraiser. Rising star and state senator Josh Stein is running for attorney general. Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system, would likely have to exit his post before his tenure ends at the end of the year, and is a relatively inexperienced politician to begin with.
If Hagan passes, party leaders are expected to recruit State Treasurer Janet Cowell. But Cowell has already said she will seek reelection to her statewide office, and although some Democrats hold out hope she could change her mind, many are also skeptical she's interested in federal office.
That would leave the party with lesser-known and untested state legislators, such as Sen. Jeff Jackson, a liberal favorite who in a statement to National Journal said he is "seriously considering" running. But Jackson, who also noted that he has a newborn baby at home who will "weigh heavily" on his decision, is just 32, new to politics, and has never run a difficult campaign. In a marquee Senate race, it's not an ideal profile.
And that's what's got Democrats back to talking about Hagan.
More than one strategist recounted how she entered her first Senate race in 2007, initially passing only to reverse course and declare in October. It's something they eagerly envision happening again.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated how much money was spent against Kay Hagan in the 2014 election. Both sides combined to spend more than $100 million total during the race.
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