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In North Carolina’s pivotal Senate race, abortion might be a key issue

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’ supporters hope to channel anger over North Carolina’s new anti-abortion restrictions into a get-out-the-vote effort in what’s expected to be a fiercely competitive re-election campaign this year.

Hagan’s looming race against one of six Republicans set to run in their party’s May Senate primary, including presumptive frontrunner, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, could be one of the marquee contests in this year’s midterm elections.

North Carolina will be one of several pivotal Senate battles that could decide whether Democrats keep control of the chamber or lose it to the Republicans.

It’s also among 22 states where lawmakers last year made it harder to obtain an abortion.

Democrats see that as an opportunity to continue to hammer Republicans with the “war on women” strategy that proved successful for them in the 2012 elections.

“Women, not politicians, should be the ones to make these difficult and complex decisions in consultation with their doctor, their family and their faith,” Hagan said statement in response to questions for this story.

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Central North Carolina, the group’s political arm, intends to help Hagan by targeting women who favor access to abortion. It’s the same strategy that Planned Parenthood in Virginia used last fall in the governor’s race to help Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeat Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

“There’s a really large number of women in North Carolina who care deeply about women’s health and want to make sure women have access to basic health care,” said Paige Johnson, the action fund’s vice president of external and governmental affairs.

She said that people were angry about the abortion restrictions and “galvanized in a way they’ve never been in the state and are paying attention in a way we’ve never had.”

Republicans counter that voters are more concerned about the economy than they are about abortion. The health care law, in particular, “trumps everything,” said GOP strategist Marc Rotterman in Raleigh.

Still, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution at its winter meeting earlier this month that urged its candidates to speak out against abortion. The resolution alleged that Democrats had “waged a deceptive ‘War on Women’ attack against Republican pro-life candidates,” and warned that GOP candidates who have remained silent about their own anti-abortion views “have lost their elections.”

Comments offensive to many women have led to some prominent stumbles by GOP candidates in some recent campaigns. This election cycle, Republican House and Senate candidates have been getting tutored on in how to avoid verbal gaffes that would not sound insulting to women voters.

“Republicans aren’t going to sit back and let Democrats trump up this war on women and let it go unresponded to,” said Katie Packer Gage, a Washington-area Republican consultant who works with candidates on how they present themselves to women voters.

But perhaps as an indication that the party continues to wrestle with the topic, a planned women’s briefing at the House Republican retreat this week had to be cancelled.

Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Democrats will likely use the issue of abortion restrictions to motivate voters, especially women.

“But North Carolina is one of those states where it probably will pack a little more punch because of what happened at the state level,” she said.

In July, the legislature passed a law that gives the state the authority to regulate abortion clinics as stringently as same-day surgery centers, but doesn’t require it. The law also allows health care providers to opt out of performing abortions if doing so is against their beliefs, and stops government insurance plans from paying for them.

Tillis, the Republican North Carolina House speaker, also supported state efforts that blocked Planned Parenthood from receiving funding from the state for its screenings and other health services.

Greg Brannon, a tea party activist endorsed by libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential 2016 presidential hopeful, and the Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte Baptist pastor endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, are expected to mount the most serious challenges to Tillis in the Republican primary.

Both Brannon and Harris oppose abortion in all cases, including rape and incest. Tillis believes abortion should be permitted in situations where the mother’s health is at risk and in cases of rape and incest.

The Republican candidates also say the state has the authority to ban contraception, but shouldn’t ban all forms of it. They also favor a “personhood” constitutional amendment that would grant legal protections to a fertilized human egg and possibly ban some forms of birth control.

All the Republican candidates believe the state has the authority to ban contraception and favor a so-called “personhood” constitutional amendment that would grant legal protections to a fertilized human egg and possibly ban some forms of birth control.

“We’d be eager for them to run against birth control because it would be completely out of line with our state,” said Planned Parenthood’s Johnson.

Hagan’s voting record makes her views on abortion clear.

She opposed an unsuccessful amendment in 2012 by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would have allowed employers to refuse to provide insurance coverage for health services they disagreed with, including contraceptives.

Current law allows religious organizations to opt out of covering contraceptives.

Hagan said that states should not be allowed to ban contraceptives, “just as they should not be allowed to ban any other safe, approved medication.”

She also opposed a bill by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy except when the mother’s life is endangered or in cases of rape or incest. The House passed a similar measure in June.

Tillis and Harris have said through their spokesmen that they would have supported the bill. Brannon has said he backs any bill that would end abortion.

Hagan has also opposed efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, noting that the organization provides preventive care for both women and men.

"Women’s health should never be a political football,” she said. “We need to be focused on creating jobs and getting our economy back on track, not legislating women’s access to care."

Her top contributor in her Senate career, at $404,000, has been EMILY’s List, a political action committee that funds the campaigns of Democratic women who support abortion rights, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.

Abortion receives no mention on Hagan’s campaign website, under “women’s issues.” It cites her support of equal pay, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and “measures that increase women’s access to preventive care, and stopped insurance companies from charging women more than they charge men.”

The last part is a reference to the Affordable Care Act, although the website doesn’t mention it by name. Hagan’s support for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, sent her poll numbers tumbling.

Thomas Mills, a North Carolina Democratic political consultant said Hagan was unlikely to focus in her campaign on abortion because it’s too divisive, but her supporters could use it to get out the vote.

In a September Elon University Poll, 45 percent of registered voters said state laws should make access to abortion more difficult, 41 said it should be less difficult and 13 percent said they didn’t know. The poll of 701 voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percent.

In a midterm election, even a small increase in turnout can be important in a close race, said Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor of political science and director of the poll at the school in Elon, N.C.

But the issue carries risks for both sides.

“Any strategy by Republicans or Democrats to use abortion to rally the troops could always backfire and rally more opposition troops,” Fernandez said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong year for the potential presidential candidacy of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

John Frank of The News & Observer contributed to this article from Raleigh, N.C.