With Dole vanquished, Hagan faces new challenges

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 5, 2008 

US NEWS ELN-ELECTION 95 RA

Democrat Kay Hagan, standing in front of her family, celebrates winning a U.S. Senate seat for North Carolina.

TED RICHARDSON — Ted Richardson / Raleigh News & Observer / MCT

RALEIGH, N.C. — For now, Democrat Kay Hagan has all the power and celebrity befitting someone who has just toppled one of America's best known political women.

Come January, she'll have to figure out how to translate her win into action as a freshman in the U.S. Senate.

Hagan has legislative experience after a decade in the North Carolina State Senate, but now she must figure out how to navigate a different club, one made up of 100 egos and where, it is said, each member looks in the mirror each morning and sees a future president staring back. And though Hagan will have some notoriety because of her opponent, the attention might not translate into much once she starts work in Washington, said Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University.

"She'll be visible because of who she's slain, that's for sure," Taylor said. "She's the one who brought down Elizabeth Dole, but that and $3.50 will get you a cup of coffee."

Hagan has been hosted at fundraisers around the country, and she benefited from millions of dollars in advertising from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, run by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. Several senators visited the Tar Heel State on her behalf. Plenty of her new co-workers already know her.

Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, as Hagan settled into her victory, the calls came pouring in -- from Schumer, from Sen. Hillary Clinton, from Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Ben Nelson and Claire McCaskill. Wednesday morning, Hagan appeared on the "Today" show. Later, she called those who helped her raise money and get out the vote around North Carolina.

"I think there's always this sense of, 'My gosh, I'm going to the United States Senate,'" said McCaskill of Missouri, who slayed her own GOP dragon, Sen. Jim Talent, just two years ago. "I wanted to reassure her how well she's going to do. I wanted her to not feel intimidated in the least. She's going to be a star."

By Wednesday afternoon, Hagan didn't even acknowledge feeling tired.

"I feel great," Hagan said in an interview at a Raleigh deli, sipping tea as voters congratulated her.

Hagan now must assemble an office staff, which she wants to include both experienced Washington workers and those from back home who understand the diverse regions of North Carolina. She'll consider hiring from Dole's constituent district staff, Hagan said. In two weeks, she heads to Capitol Hill for three days of how-to-be-a-senator training.

She hopes to join two Senate committees: Banking, and the committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, known as HELP.

Dole, who ends her term in December, sat on the Banking panel. The state's other senator, Richard Burr, sits on the HELP committee, and it's unclear whether the Democratic leadership would want two senators from the same state on the committee.

Hagan didn't say whether she would try to elbow Burr off the panel.

"He called me this morning," Hagan said. Burr offered his congratulations and pledged to help Hagan with the transition.

And with so many senators with tenures of two years or less, McCaskill said, Hagan won't be alone in her inexperience.

"She will be called on to contribute early and often," McCaskill said. "Frankly, the fresh perspective is what the place needs."

Still, Hagan would be wise to tamp down expectations about what she can get accomplished in her first few years in office, Taylor said, as freshmen don't have the seniority to push through major bills. He recommended that she find more senior senators to partner with, and warned that at the end of her first six years, she might not have a long list of major accomplishments.

Those who watch Congress say Hagan should choose a few issues on which to focus her work, rather than trying to do it all.

Hagan said Wednesday she wants to first tackle the economy, with an emphasis on creating jobs, though she didn't offer a ready list of specific suggestions.

"There's not a magic bullet out there," Hagan said. "I certainly have got lots of ideas. Give me a few days to put my transition team in place."

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