As a Democrat from a swing state, Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina already faces a tough re-election fight next year.
But with gun control emerging as a key political issue in the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., last month that left 20 elementary school children dead, holding onto her seat could become even more of a challenge.
Hagan casts herself as a moderate who fits in with the culture of her native state. On guns, a political fault line in the country as deep as those on abortion and gay marriage, she’s quick to brandish her bona fides: She grew up in a family of hunters, enjoys hiking and fishing, and co-chairs the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus.
But the first-term Democrat faces the possibility of having to cast votes in the Senate this year on a variety of gun control measures that her critics could turn into political weapons. Both the White House and Senate Democrats have offered proposals that run the gamut, from banning assault weapons to requiring background checks on all gun sales.
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Some face a steep, uphill fight. Others, like the background checks, have widespread support.
But the sponsor of the Senate bill, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, offered no easy out for colleagues like Hagan who face a tricky political landscape in 2014.
Following a recent press conference about the legislation, Feinstein said of the Newtown killings, “The message to Democrats is, ‘See what your silence does? There will be more of these.’”
Hagan, who declined to be interviewed, said in a recent statement that she would “look at any proposal with an open mind” and that she favors “a comprehensive approach that ensures our communities are safe, while respecting the rights of responsible gun owners.”
“We need to ensure that there are laws in place to prevent a tragedy like Sandy Hook (Elementary School) from ever happening again,” she said. “First and foremost, that will require a serious common sense debate in Congress that looks at access to guns, access to mental health care and violent video games.”
But Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, a prominent gun rights group, said Hagan was “doing her dead-level best to camouflage her position on this issue.”
If she votes for any restrictions, Valone said, “We’re coming after her.”
Hagan is one of several moderate Democrats in the Senate from swing states who face the voters next year. Their party leadership has generally allowed them a fair amount of leeway on controversial issues to accommodate their complex politics back home. They would likely do so on guns as well.
And Hagan can read the political terrain in the Tar Heel State as well as anyone. Before her election in 2008, when she trounced the Republican incumbent, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, she had been schooled by her work on local, state and federal campaigns, and she also served in the state Senate.
Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant in the state, said strict gun control would “fall flat” in North Carolina. A 2011 survey showed nearly half the people in the state – 42 percent – own firearms at home, and Hagan, he said, has a strong record as a Second Amendment supporter.
“I think she’s probably going to neutralize the issue,” Mills said. “There will be people who try to make it an issue, though.”
Hagan also likely would have the political freedom to vote against some of the more restrictive proposals, like an assault weapons ban, because it doesn’t appear likely to pass, so her opposition couldn’t be tied to its defeat.
But Marc Rotterman, a conservative Republican strategist in Raleigh, said that Hagan is walking a tightrope between what President Barack Obama and other Democrats in Washington want on gun control, and what conservatives in North Carolina want in terms of Second Amendment rights.
“I would say the NRA (National Rifle Association), the folks who are law-abiding gun owners, are very well organized and tend to be single-issue voters,” Rotterman said. “At the end of the day, that one issue could swing a lot of votes to her opponent if not handled correctly from the NRA’s or gun owners’ perspective.”
Suzanne Rallis of Charlotte, who’s organizing a chapter of a new group, One Million Moms for Gun Control, said the issue doesn’t divide neatly along party lines.
“I know Republicans who support it and Democrats who oppose it,” she said.
Her group, formed after the Newtown massacre, will use phone calls and rallies to appeal to lawmakers to pass the assault weapons ban and other measures.
For Hagan, however, the bottom line is that it’s dangerous for a North Carolina senator to vote for any substantial gun control bill, said Thomas Eamon, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Carolina University.
“I think whoever her Republican opponent is is likely to get the bulk of interest group support in regard to guns,” he said. “It’s been a dangerous issue for Southern Democrats in the past.”