Jesse Helms must be spinning in his grave. Elizabeth Dole, the wife of former GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, won Helms' North Carolina Senate seat by a comfortable nine-point margin after he vacated it in 2002. Then in 2006, as head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, Dole managed to hand control of the Senate to Democrats by presiding over a surprise loss of six seats. Now Dole is in danger of losing Helms' seat itself to Democratic State Senator Kay Hagan and perhaps handing the Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the process.
But if Helms would be horrified at the idea of his old seat unleashing a Democratic tide across all of Washington, the hard-knuckle campaigner who died last July at the age of 86 might approve of Dole's latest effort to prevent it from happening. In an ad buy across North Carolina, Dole unveiled Wednesday a thirty-second spot that accuses Hagan of accepting money from the "Godless Americans" PAC. The video finishes with a picture of Hagan and a voice clip of a woman who sounds like her (but is not) saying "There is no God!"
Hagan, who has been a Sunday school teacher and is a regular church-goer, fired back Wednesday. "This is a fabricated, pathetic ad," she said, "How dare she attack my faith. Is Elizabeth Dole that desperate to keep this Senate seat?" A day later, Hagan actually filed a defamation suit against Dole over the ad; the Republican's campaign responded by saying that it stands by the ad and that "This lawsuit is frivolous, and we will file a motion to dismiss." The most cutting comment on the entire flap came from high-octane Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, who said on CNN, "When you're making ads that say [your opponent thinks] there is no God, it usually means your campaign doesn't have a prayer."
In truth, it's not quite that bad for Dole. Most polls have shown the race to be tight, though over the last month and a half Hagan has had an average of a three or four point lead. But the mere fact that Dole felt she had to launch an attack on her opponent's faith shows how daunting the trends against Republicans like Dole are this election year.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent millions on ads in the state, including a series of successfully satirical TV spots featuring two old men in rocking chairs arguing over Dole's age, her low effectiveness ratings as a Senator, and how frequently she has voted with George W. Bush. "The DSCC ads have been devastating," says Democratic Congressman Brad Miller. "They have not been nasty, they've been light and funny, but they've made the point that Elizabeth Dole has not been an effective Senator." Though freshman rarely achieve much, Dole has left a fairly shallow impression as a legislator, moving only a handful of notable bills, including one to do away with tobacco quotas.
Hagan has also gotten a boost from the attention Obama's presidential campaign has focused on North Carolina. Believing it to be in play for the first time in years, the Democratic nominee has campaigned here regularly, built up a massive ground organization, and launched a huge registration drive. The Obama campaign has been doing literature drops and mailings that push the whole Democratic ticket, and has deployed teams to early voting sites to help explain how to vote Democratic all the way down the ticket.
Hagan has been a stronger candidate in her own right than some expected. A relatively unknown State legislator from Greensboro, Hagan beat four contenders in the primary with 60% of the vote after better known candidates declined to run or withdrew. Democratic dominance of North Carolina's two legislative houses meant she's had a fairly safe voting record-she hasn't been forced into any uncomfortable votes by Republican opponents, as has happened to Democratic incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives on taxes, energy and national security. Hagan is considered liberal by North Carolina standards, and has hit Dole on her absence from the state.
Dole's campaign was late to realize the threat, but has kicked into gear over the last month. The onetime head of the American Red Cross and presidential candidate has been on an eight-day bus tour of the state and has been running ads linking Hagan to Big Oil. She recently announced that she would spend $3 million of her own money in the final push before election day.
Dole campaign spokesman Dan McLagan admits Hagan's efforts have gained her points but says, "It's more tonnage than cunning," and predicts the latest round of ads will help win it for Dole.
With the race as tight as it is, Hagan's chances in the once reliably red state may boil down to voter education thanks to a quirk of state political history. In the '80s, the Democratic controlled legislature got tired of losing down ballot races thanks to weak presidential candidates and separated the ballots. On this year's ballot, therefore, voters have to vote twice-once for president and once for the Democrats from the state - rather than being able to make one single choice for the entire slate of Democratic candidates.
Dole may yet pull out a victory despite the predictions of the pollsters. If she does, it will be hard to argue that it wasn't her attack on Hagan's faith that put her over the top. That may leave some observers, including eleven in-state newspapers, shaking their heads, but as the Charlotte Observer put it, "Somewhere, Jesse Helms is laughing and clapping in glee."