Some of the attack lines Sen. Kay Hagan is hearing this fall may sound familiar. She used them herself against her opponent six years ago.
As she faces a tough re-election fight, the North Carolina Democrat also faces a role reversal: Like Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the Republican she defeated in 2008, Hagan is a first-term senator being criticized by an upstart state legislator as "ineffective."
Hagan’s Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, plans over the next few weeks to try to portray her as “one of the most ineffective senators in North Carolina’s history” because she has not introduced a bill during her first term that has been made law.
“Instead of working across the aisle to pass laws benefitting North Carolina families, Hagan has put her liberal special interest allies first, rubber-stamping President Obama’s failed partisan agenda 95 percent of the time,” Tillis’s communications director Daniel Keylin will say in a statement to be released Thursday.
Tillis and his campaign are betting they can draw a contrast between Hagan’s brief tenure as a senator and his record as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, which has been under Republican control since 2010.
“What you'll see from us is reminding the voters of what candidate Hagan said and showing the voters what Sen. Hagan has done,” said Jordan Shaw, Tillis’s campaign manager. “Usually, the rhetoric doesn't match the reality.”
If the dig sounds eerily familiar, it might be because Democrats used strikingly similar language when they sought to undermine Dole in 2008.
“Elizabeth Dole is vulnerable because of her ineffectiveness on behalf of working families in North Carolina,” Hagan’s spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan said at the time.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee echoed the message in a series of memorable attack ads.
In one, “Rocking Chairs,” two elderly men sit on a front porch, discussing Dole’s record.
“After 43 years in Washington, Dole is 93rd in effectiveness, right near the bottom,” one of the men says. Dole had served as Secretary of Transportation under President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Labor under President George H.W. Bush prior to her single term in the Senate.
Another ad from the DSCC, entitled “Ineffective,” declared, “Elizabeth Dole: Just not getting the job done.”
Dole’s campaign attempted to debunk the ads with television spots of its own, but the attacks stuck. Ultimately, Dole lost her bid for re-election, and Hagan won a seat in the Senate.
Tillis’ campaign is aware of the parallel and hopes it will lend further credibility to their push.
“There are several themes that Sen. Hagan used in 2008, themes and promises she made, that have not panned out, that she has not followed through on,” Shaw said.
The narrative also looks to chip away at an argument that has been at the heart of Hagan’s messaging strategy thus far. Two ads released concurrently in June, “Fabric” and “For Janey,” focused on Hagan’s work to boost measures that would benefit her constituents.
“These ads are effective in showing that despite the gridlock plaguing Washington, Kay has built a record of getting results for North Carolina families by working across the aisle,” Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner told the Washington Examiner recently.
As Tillis’ team plans to point out, Hagan introduced neither of the bills she claims credit for in recent ads.
The ad “Fabric” credits Hagan with closing a loophole in the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement, “saving hundreds of North Carolina jobs,” according to the ad’s narrator.
Hagan supported the bill to close the loophole and spoke out in favor of its passage, but it was sponsored by former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., in the Senate, and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., in the House.
Hagan was more intimately involved in developing a measure, invoked in her ad “For Janey,” to provide health care to Marines exposed to toxic water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Hagan worked on the bill with fellow North Carolina Rep. Brad Miller, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who introduced the bill in the Senate. Hagan was a co-sponsor.
“Kay Hagan getting involved was a turning point,” Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine whose daughter Janey was conceived on the base and later died of leukemia, says in the ad.
President Obama signed the measure into law in 2012 during a ceremony in the Oval Office.
Cementing in voters’ minds her role in passing these measures and others will be critical for Hagan to win another term. Recent public polling has shown Hagan with a slight lead over Tillis.
For its part, Hagan's campaign said the attack by Tillis was an attempt to distract attention from his own record in the state legislature, particularly his role in ferrying through a tax reform package that critics say has benefited wealthy taxpayers.
"Kay has been named the most moderate senator and has a commonsense record of bipartisan results to match," Weiner, Hagan's spokeswoman, said, "but Speaker Tillis will have to spend the next three months explaining to North Carolinians why he chose budget busting tax cuts for the wealthy over investments in education."