Kay Hagan, Former North Carolina Senator, Dead At 66

Former North Caroline Senator Kay Hagan has died,

Kay Hagen, who served as North Carolina’s second female Senator after defeating Elizabeth Dole, has died at the age of 66:

Kay Hagan, a moderate Democrat from North Carolina who pursued a successful banking career before becoming a stay-at-home parent, then served one term in the U.S. Senate after securing a 2008 victory over incumbent Elizabeth Dole, a Republican considered Washington royalty, died Oct. 28 at her home in Greensboro, N.C. She was 66.

A family representative, Ross Harris, said the cause was complications of Powassan virus, which can cause encephalitis. Ms. Hagan had been diagnosed with the tick-borne virus in 2016. The day before her death, she visited with former vice president Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

In a statement, Biden called Ms. Hagan “a champion for North Carolina and a fierce defender of all its citizens,” adding that “she was a crucial partner” in passing the Affordable Care Act and the 2009economic stimulus package.

Ms. Hagan, a former vice president at what is now Bank of America, lost her Senate seat in 2014 to Thom Tillis, the Republican speaker of the North Carolina House. She had previously spent a decade as a state senator in Raleigh and decided to run for Congress after several ­high-profile Democrats backed away from the 2008 race.

Her opponent, Dole, had served as a Cabinet secretary in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and was the wife of Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader and Republican candidate for president.

Ms. Hagan, by contrast, was a little-known state lawmaker, albeit with deep ties to North Carolina and politics in her blood. Her father was a former Florida mayor, and her uncle was Lawton Chiles, a Democratic senator from Florida who was elected governor in 1990. In her 20s, she interned for him on Capitol Hill, operating a bronze elevator for senators whileimagining her own political future.

Buoyed by the energy surrounding Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy in 2008she won her Senate seat by more than eight percentage points, becoming the first female Democratic senator from North Carolina and the state’s second female senator ever, following Dole.

“It was a shock, particularly the margin of victory,” said Andrew J. Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. “Not only did she beat Dole, but she ran ahead of Obama and she ran ahead of Bev Perdue,” a Democrat who was elected the state’s first female governor. Two women winning high statewide offices in North Carolina was “historic,” he added, “especially in a Southern state with its social conservatism.”

Ms. Hagan maintained a centrist approach in the Senate, with an eye toward the tobacco and banking interests that had long dominated her state’s economy. After voting for the 2010 financial regulation overhaul known as Dodd-Frank, she pushed to delay a ban on proprietary trading by banks and to delay restrictions on fees charged for transactions.

She also worked to limit payday lending and was the only Democrat to vote against 2009 legislation that empowered the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the tobacco industry, joining Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to propose an alternative in which a separate federal agency would be created to oversee the industry.

Ms. Hagan backed abortion rights and proposals to expand background checks for gun buyers, and she supported expanded roles for women in combat. Sitting on the Armed Services Committee, she also questioned Army Secretary John McHugh on the deaths of 12 infants at Fort Bragg and pressed for the release of documents on contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

“In our time as Senate colleagues, we worked across the aisle together frequently on issues that we both knew would determine what type of country our children would inherit, from conservation to our common defense,” Burr said in a statement Monday. “She tackled everything she did with a passion and a sense of humor that will be missed.”

More from the Charlotte Observer:

Kay Ruthven was born in Shelby, the second of three children. The family moved to Charleston when she was 2 and later went on to Lakeland, Fla., where her father would serve as mayor. Hagan went to public schools and learned survival skills from her brothers.

“Being the girl in the middle,” she says, “I had to fight for everything I got.”

Hagan went to Florida State and law school at Wake Forest. There she met fellow student Chip Hagan. After their first date, she called her mother.

“I told her I met the man I’m going to marry,” she once recalled.

They moved to Greensboro, where the Hagan family was well-established. Chip Hagan led the local Chamber of Commerce and the Guilford County Democrats. Kay Hagan, a corporate lawyer, served with groups such as the YWCA and the arts council. She was an elder at her Presbyterian church.

In 1992 and ’96, Kay Hagan chaired Democrat Jim Hunt’s Guilford County gubernatorial campaigns. In 1998, he helped recruit her to run for the state Senate. She was, he would say later, “a real dynamo.”

With strong business support, liberals didn’t see Hagan as one of their own. During the 2008 Democratic primary, her opponent called her “Republican lite.”

During 10 years in Raleigh, Hagan rose from a back-bencher to a lead budget writer. By the time she left she was rated the seventh-most influential member of the 50-member state Senate by the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

In the state Senate, Hagan impressed Democratic leaders who made her co-chair of the budget committee. She become known as a hard driver, a pro-business Democrat who supported her party’s majority. Critics such as then-Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger called her “a lapdog of the Democrat leadership.”

But Chris Fitzsimon, then-director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch, said at the time that she was “in the mainstream” and “very competent.”

Long before she ran for the U.S. Senate, Hagan had gotten a taste of the Capitol — and a bug for politics.

During an internship in the mid-’70s, she operated the bronze elevator that ferried senators to and from the chamber. She carried members such as Ted Kennedy, Biden and her uncle, Lawton Chiles of Florida. At the controls, the senator’s niece daydreamed about a political career of her own. “It’s infectious,” she would later say.

Hagan entered the 2008 U.S. Senate primary after higher profile Democrats passed and she lagged Elizabeth Dole in early polls.

The campaign grew heated in the final days over Dole’s so-called “Godless” ad. The ad said Hagan had attended a fundraiser at the home of a man who headed the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, a group lobbying to end official references to God. Hagan “took Godless money,” the ad said. “What did Hagan promise in return?” Hagan sued for defamation.

In an ad in response, Hagan called the attack on her faith offensive.

“She even faked my voice in her TV ad to make you think I don’t believe in God,” Hagan says in the ad. “Well I believe in God. I taught Sunday school. My faith guides my life.”

In unseating the nationally prominent Dole, Hagan out-polled Barack Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina in three decades.

In Washington she became a strong backer of the Affordable Care Act and generally adhered to mainstream Democratic policies. She also continued to advocate for women.

“As President, I deeply appreciated her reasoned, pragmatic voice, whether we were working together to pass the Affordable Care Act, reform Wall Street, support working families, or just make Americans’ lives a little better,” former president Barack Obama said in a statement. “…We’re all better off because of her.”

Notwithstanding the fact that she was a relatively moderate Democrat, which is probably the reason she was able to win statewide in North Carolina to begin with, Hagan couldn’t stop being caught up in the Republican wave that hit Senate elections in 2014. That year, she lost to Senator Thom Tillis by the relatively narrow margin of 45,608 votes after having won in 2008 by over 300,000 votes. After that loss she was courted by Democrats to challenge North Carolina’s other Republican Senator, Richard Burr, She ultimately decided not to run, though, and later that year was infected by the virus that ultimately led to her death via a tick bite that led to encephalitis.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Obituaries, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    How does this happen in 2019???

  2. Is there some reason why bites from infected ticks shouldn’t happen in 2019?

  3. CSK says:

    The Charlotte Observer says that Sen. Hagan had suffered from encephalitis for 3 years after having been bitten by the virus-carrying tick in 2016. She had been trying to regain her strength. Awful.

  4. Jen says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: From my understanding, it’s *far more likely* to happen in 2019. As the climate changes, tick-borne illnesses are increasing. This is particularly true in the Northeast, where I live. The illness she died from, Powassan, has seen the number of reported cases increase year-over-year. From the NYT piece on her passing:

    The virus that proved fatal to Ms. Hagan, Powassan (pronounced po-WAH-sun), is named after a town in Ontario, where it killed a boy in 1958. Only six cases were reported in the United States in 2015, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    But with the tick population exploding, and tick-borne diseases increasing, especially in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region, the number of Powassan cases rose to 21 in 2016 and 33 in 2017. Still, this is a tiny proportion of diseases borne by ticks. The CDC said that about 10 percent of people with a severe case of the virus die and 50 percent experience long-term health consequences.

    Mr. Hagan said his family surmised that Ms. Hagan picked up a tick when they were hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia over Thanksgiving in 2016. They had walked through the woods at Peaks of Otter and had a picnic on the grass, where she was probably bitten, he said.

    A man in New Hampshire was diagnosed with *both* Powassan and Jamestown Canyon diseases this year.

  5. Franklin says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: You sound ticked off. Which is weird, since there is a type of Off for ticks.

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Is there some reason why bites from infected ticks shouldn’t happen in 2019?

    I don’t understand why people die from this in 2019. Of course people do. People shouldn’t.