Kay Hagan’s Dilemma: Double Binds and the 2014 Senate Campaign

Control of the United States Senate after the 2014 midterm elections may come down to the North Carolina contest between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis. Analysts such as Larry Sabato have discussed scenarios in which the North Carolina race is pivotal for both parties. Likewise, independent expenditure groups, such as American Crossroads, are pouring money into the state in amounts that suggest they understand the state’s significance.

This situation only adds to the pressure that Democrats in the state and the Hagan campaign undoubtedly feel in protecting the seat. The first-term senator has a strong campaign war chest heading into the general election campaign against Thom Tillis, but is facing many obstacles, including approval ratings around forty percent and a highly motivated Republican Party in the state that wants to add to its win totals in the last three election cycles.

In addition to these well documented issues that Senator Hagan faces in her reelection bid, her campaign faces some fundamental strategic choices in terms of positioning the candidate and the approach to messaging that it takes. These strategic choices create a double bind, or paradoxical situation in which either choice the campaign makes in terms of positioning Hagan or in messaging could have very negative consequences.

The term “double-bind” originated with anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Although the term is often used as a synonym for a “no-win” situation, Bateson argues that double binds may put contradictory demands on the subject, but he states that the subject often has difficulty in defining the paradoxical situation she or he finds himself in. Interpersonal relationships, for example, could have many double binds. For example, one person may tell the other person that she loves him, while at the same time saying or doing something mean-spirited.

Communication scholar Kathleen Jamieson has written about the double binds women face as political leaders. She discusses six sets of contradictory characteristics that cause women difficulty in achieving equality in leadership. For example, she writes that women who speak out are immodest, while women who are quiet are ignored.

Kay Hagan’s double binds in the 2014 campaign are only partially connected with the fact that she is a woman.  Hagan’s double binds, however, are more strategic in nature. There are three major double binds facing the campaign and how the campaign negotiates these  choices may have as much to do with Hagan’s success or failure in November as the amount of independent expenditure money flowing into the state or how national events in the next six months will impact voters.

Double Bind #1: Good news about the national economy v. bad news about the state economy

As the national unemployment rate drops and the stock market continues to rise, President Obama has taken credit for this improvement and talked about how many of his policies, including the Affordable Care Act, contributes to the improving situation. Hagan has the unenviable position of wanting to support the president’s position and tout the national recovery, while needing to attack her opponent, Thom Tillis, for passing legislation and a budget, that hurts the economic opportunities for North Carolinians. Too much cheerleading for the president and the national recovery can make Hagan seem to be too close to President Obama, whose approval ratings in North Carolina are worse than hers, but attacking the state’s economy and Tillis’ role in widening the economic divide may put her at odds with the business community, still a key player in electoral success.

Double Bind #2:  Embrace being a moderate v. embrace being a Moral Monday liberal

North Carolina politics has followed the national trend of becoming polarized. There are few moderates in the North Carolina Congressional delegation or the General Assembly. Moderates can be successful in statewide races and, as political scientists Christopher Hare, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal argue, Hagan is perceived by NC voters as significantly more moderate than Barack Obama. The loudest voices in the Democratic Party, however, are liberal. Specifically, the Moral Monday protestors, led by Reverend William Barber, are dominating the news stories and dictating the policy agenda for Democrats. The Moral Monday group has set itself up as the perfect foil for conservative Republicans on issues like Medicaid expansion, teacher pay, unemployment insurance, Voter ID, and a host of other issues. Hagan, although supported by groups like Planned Parenthood, has been coy about the Moral Monday protestors, stating in an Easter recess speech in North Carolina that the protestors were “showing their anger and frustration with the actions taken by the current general assembly which hurts North Carolina.” She has not publicly appeared at a protest and has not endorsed the group or its goals. Although it appears as though progressives, including Moral Monday protestors will generally support Hagan, she is in a difficult spot, in a close election, or trying to win the moderates or ensuring that a great swell of Moral Monday voters go to the polls to defeat Tom Tillis.

Double Bind #3: Run as a state candidate v. run as a national candidate

Ever since Tip O’Neill uttered the famous maxim “All politics are local,” political scientists and analysts have argued about whether candidates for Congress should run on local or national issues. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz argues in a recent column (http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/nationalization-of-senate-elections-poses-challenge-to-democrats-in-2014) that US Senate races have become a referendum on presidential approval, thus seeming to make O’Neill’s statement irrelevant. In recent weeks, Kay Hagan has tried to straddle the fence between running locally and nationally. She has been more vocal in her defense of the Affordable Care Act, the issue independent expenditure groups have been attacking her with since last fall.  At the same time she has focused on local issues, such as voicing support for laid off furniture workers in Robbinsville and advocating keeping the 440th Air Wing active in Fort Bragg. Although these issues are undoubtedly important for voters in those regions, these issues are not among those issues that most voters consider to be most important. Also, running against the NC General Assembly and Thom Tillis as House Speaker further highlights the perception that many voters have in NC that Hagan has done little in Washington but support the Obama policy agenda.

The double binds faced by the Hagan campaign are not unique. In many ways the Tillis campaign faces equally daunting double binds, such as whether to embrace the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party or the establishment Republican agenda. Not only should this race be extremely close until Election Day, but it is a campaign in which both candidates, face fundamental strategic choices, choices that could tilt control of the US Senate to one party or the other.

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