HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (AP) — The crowd that swamped a recent GOP candidates' forum at a suburban Charlotte sports bar testified to Republicans' hopes of defeating North Carolina's first-term Democratic senator and moving closer to controlling the U.S. Senate.
After years of voting Republican for presidents and Democratic for governors, North Carolina now rivals Ohio as a toss-up. No state plays a bigger role this year in whether Democrats will hold their Senate majority. And no Democratic senator has drawn more attack ads than Kay Hagan.
She's trying to stop a four-year Republican surge that turned North Carolina's government sharply rightward and dealt President Barack Obama his only 2012 defeat in a fully contested state.
As in many places, Republicans want to focus the campaign overwhelmingly on Obama and his health care overhaul. Without waiting for Republican voters to pick a nominee from a crowded field, a conservative group has spent nearly $6 million attacking Hagan for supporting the national health care law.
"This is the most toxic issue I've seen in my political life," says Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who entered Congress 19 years ago. He predicts the health law — and Obama's overall unpopularity — will sink Hagan, a lawyer and state legislator who seemingly came from nowhere to oust GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole six years ago.
Burr and many other well-established Republicans support Thom Tillis in the May 6 primary. He's the North Carolina House speaker, and a corporate consultant from the Charlotte area.
Battling Tillis, however, are feisty leaders of the tea party and conservative Christian movements. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has endorsed one, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has endorsed the other.
Tillis has more money and a better organization. But Democrats hope the others can hold him below 40 percent in the primary. That would force a runoff in which Tillis might be battered, and possibly beaten, by anti-establishment enthusiasm.
"You've got the Republican civil war playing out right here," says Raleigh Democratic activist Thomas Mills. "You've got your tea partyers, your Christian conservatives and your bankers and country clubbers."
After 20 years of enduring Democratic governors and a mostly Democratic legislature, North Carolina Republicans took total control of the government in the 2010 and 2012 elections. They poured pent-up energies into slashing taxes, spending and unemployment benefits, curbing Islamic "sharia law" and limiting abortion. Their new voting requirements — among the nation's strictest — are most likely to affect poor and minority voters, who mainly vote Democratic.
The changes shocked North Carolina liberals and many moderates accustomed to a more balanced brand of conservatism, notwithstanding Jesse Helms' 30-year Senate career. North Carolina, they said, isn't South Carolina.
Obama made southern history in 2008, ending long GOP-win streaks in North Carolina and Virginia. Some people feel Hagan rode his coattails, but she won by a much larger margin.
Virginia has kept narrowly trending Democratic. Democrats now hold the state's governorship, state Senate and both U.S. Senate seats.
North Carolina, however, shifted right again. After huge state GOP victories in 2010, Mitt Romney bested Obama in 2012. Republican Pat McCrory was easily elected governor when the Democratic incumbent didn't run.
In North Carolina, "2008 was an aberration," said GOP consultant Marc Rotterman. "North Carolina is a center-right state," he said, and most voters are content with the GOP-led legislature's work.
"The problem for Hagan," Rotterman said, "is Obamcare is an albatross around her neck."
Like fellow Democratic senators in Arkansas and Louisiana, Hagan is trying to limit the law's damage, including the discredited claim that almost everyone could keep insurance policies they liked. She says she quickly called for inquiries into the botched computer enrollments.
Hagan says Republicans want to repeal the law without providing an alternative, letting insurers once again reject policy-seekers with pre-existing medical conditions. As for the attack ads, she said in an interview, billionaire conservatives from other states "are trying to buy this election," which "is not for sale."
Establishment Republicans including prominent fundraiser Karl Rove see Tillis, 53, as the sensible, pro-business type of conservative that North Carolinians like. But Democrats say Tillis is hardly distinguishable from his more openly ideological rivals.
Tillis is following a front-runner's strategy in the primary, focusing on raising money and skipping candidate forums.
Both he and Hagan are cautious around reporters. In a 10-minute interview in his Raleigh office, Tillis said he thought the October federal government shutdown — triggered by House conservatives demanding more spending cuts — "was well-intentioned but poorly executed."
Tillis rejected Hagan's complaints about a Republican-driven $500 million cut in state education spending. North Carolina's GOP legislators inherited a large structural deficit, he said, and "now we're seeing the benefits of the tough decisions we made," in the form of job growth.
In an earlier Associated Press interview, Tillis said he "showcased the tea party and the principles as one of the things that we need to focus on" when he became House speaker. As for his tea party and conservative Christian rivals, he said, "to a large extent they're talking about doing what we've been doing."
Such talk doesn't satisfy tea party activist Greg Brannon, an obstetrician from Cary, N.C., and Charlotte minister Mark Harris. They are Tillis' top rivals for the nomination.
They joined another contender, former Army nurse Heather Grant, at the Huntersville forum. It drew more than 100 people to a spot near Tillis' home. An empty chair labeled "Thom Tillis" mocked his absence.
Republicans taunt Hagan for sticking to Senate business in Washington when Obama recently visited Raleigh.
Hagan declined to say whether she would campaign with Obama. However, she said, "I welcome the president to come to North Carolina anytime."
Republicans say they welcome him too.
Associated Press writer Gary Robertson in Raleigh contributed to this report.