RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina rode President Barack Obama's coattails in 2008, winning a seat Republicans had held for nearly four decades.
Now Hagan faces a powerful Republican rebound as she seeks a second term in November 2014. Her saving grace in the race could be a crowded GOP primary that seems to be taking shape, with the potential to leave the eventual GOP nominee battered and broke.
North Carolina's political balance is far different now than it was in 2008 when the state sent Obama to the White House and Hagan to the Senate in a remarkable year for Democrats.
Today, the GOP controls the state's executive and legislative branches simultaneously for the first time since 1870. Republicans also hold nine of the state's 13 House seats, thanks in part to the party's efforts to redraw legislative boundaries to favor its candidates. And North Carolina, still recovering from the recession, voted for Obama in his first race but narrowly voted against him in 2012, instead backing Republican Mitt Romney.
"We've got a good record to build on," said state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is running for the Republican nomination.
Greg Brannon, a physician with tea party support, also is seeking the nod. No fewer than five other Republicans are considering bids, including state Senate leader Phil Berger, Reps. Renee Ellmers and Virginia Foxx, Southern Baptist leader the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte and former Ambassador Jim Cain of Raleigh.
Republicans are emboldened both by their recent electoral fortunes and by controversies in Washington dogging Obama and his Democrats, including questions over the IRS' improper targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny and questions about the Obama administration's handling of the terror attack that killed four Americans in Libya last fall.
"The things that are happening at a national level make North Carolina and the North Carolina Senate race that much more of an attraction for conservative candidates," said Berger, a lawyer from small-town Eden who plans to make a decision later this summer about whether to run. He said Hagan "remains vulnerable to a challenge from a strong candidate."
Republicans argue that Hagan should be replaced because she's too closely aligned with Obama and voted for his federal health care overhaul – a preview of the playbook the eventual Republican nominee is all but certain to use next fall. Republicans are using a similar pitch in the three other states where Democratic senators are up for re-election in 2014 and where Romney won last year. Republicans need to gain six Senate seats to take control, and some of the GOP's best pick-up opportunities are in North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska and Louisiana.
Hagan's other potential vulnerabilities include her support for legalizing gay marriage after a constitutional amendment banning it in North Carolina passed easily in 2012, as well as her vote for expanding background checks on gun purchases.
She's clearly mindful of Obama's divisiveness in the state, and she wasn't on hand for the president's recent visit to North Carolina. Her office said she was busy on the Senate floor with farm and student loan legislation.
Hagan is downplaying her Democratic alliances in hopes of attracting support from centrists as well as Republicans. She described herself earlier this year as a "commonsense, middle of the road, independent thinker" and has been courting farmers and veterans, two key voting blocs historically likely to vote Republican in North Carolina.
"People in North Carolina are worried about jobs and the economy, and that's what I am focused on," the former banker from Greensboro said after speaking at the recent grand opening of a high-tech greenhouse in the technology-rich Research Triangle Park.
Unemployment in North Carolina is well above the national average. In April, the jobless rate was 7.5 percent nationally and 8.9 percent in the state.
"I am hoping that we can work together as Democrats and Republicans to really help change that," said Hagan, who is fashioning herself as someone on the front lines of ending partisan gridlock in the Senate. She also has promoted her efforts to press the Obama administration to relieve a backlog in processing veterans' medical benefits and to work to reduce crop insurance fraud.
To get a second term, she'll need to win over Democrats like Scott Whitford of Pamlico County, who farms 2,500 acres. "I don't agree with her on every issue, but on most agriculture issues she has been supportive of farmers," he said. A registered Democrat, Whitford said he's voted more for Republicans over the past 15 years than from his own party.
After the farm bill passed the Senate recently, Hagan's office sent out a news release claiming she "secured major victories for North Carolina farmers," particularly tobacco growers.
Hagan raised a respectable $1.6 million during the first fundraising quarter of the year for a race that could cost the victor upwards of $10 million – not counting millions more from outside groups.
She has visited all 100 counties and held a town hall meeting in each during her first term. It serves as a contrast to Hagan's predecessor, GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who was criticized for her prolonged absence from North Carolina after decades in Washington. Hagan beat Dole in 2008, and conservative icon Jesse Helms held the seat for 30 years before Dole.
Democrats seem to be most worried about Tillis, a suburban Charlotte corporate consultant, prodigious fundraiser and one of the architects of the Republican surge in Raleigh. They're spending most of their time so far criticizing his House record and links to big donors. Democrats and civil rights groups have held a series of protests – leading to nearly 400 arrests – over the past month in Raleigh blaming Tillis, Berger and others for what they called extreme conservative policies.