A moderate Democrat who hailed from a political family with long roots in the United States Senate, Kay R. Hagan won election as North Carolina’s junior Senator in 2008 by defeating a nationally known incumbent. Hagan brought to the office a decade of experience in the state senate and a deep knowledge of the banking industry. When she arrived on Capitol Hill, she sought to mitigate the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the onset of an economic recession.

Kay Hagan was born Kay Ruthven on May 26, 1953, in Shelby, North Carolina, to Joe Ruthven and Jeanette Chiles Ruthven. The family relocated to Lakeland, Florida, where her father ran a tire sales business and sold real estate, and later served as mayor of Lakeland. Her mother was a homemaker and the sister of Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr., who represented Florida for 18 years in the U.S. Senate (1971–1989) before winning election as the state’s governor in 1990. Hagan spent six months interning in her uncle’s office in the 1970s. She also helped on his various campaigns.1

Hagan earned a BA in American Studies from Florida State University in 1975, and three years later graduated with a JD from Wake Forest University. In law school, she met her future husband Charles (Chip) Hagan. They settled in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, where they raised three children: Tilden, Jeanette, and Carrie. Kay Hagan went into law practice, working in the trust division of North Carolina National Bank (later acquired by Bank of America). She eventually became a vice president at the bank.2

Hagan began her political career as the Guilford County campaign manager for James B. Hunt’s successful gubernatorial bids in 1992 and 1996. In 1998 Hunt and state senator Marc Basnight recruited her to run for a state senate seat representing Greensboro. She won the election and served in the state legislature for a decade. Basnight, who served as senate president pro tempore, mentored Hagan and steered her toward key committee posts, including a spot as co-chair of the budget committee.3

In 2008 Republican Elizabeth Dole stood for re-election to the U.S. Senate and was considered such a strong contender that prominent state Democrats declined to challenge her. She was, as one profile noted, “Washington royalty with a gold-plated resume”: a two-time Cabinet secretary who had run for the Republican presidential nomination, and who had earlier served as head of the Red Cross.4 Hagan initially declined to challenge Dole, but Hunt and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Charles Ellis (Chuck) Schumer of New York convinced her to enter the race. In the Democratic primary, she faced a field of four male candidates, but with strong support from the national party, she prevailed with 60 percent of the vote; her nearest competitor, Jim Neal, an investment adviser from Chapel Hill, had 18 percent.5

In the general election, Hagan stressed her long connection to the state, comparing that to Dole who was married to former Kansas Senator Robert Joseph Dole and who had spent much of her life living in the Midwest and Washington, DC.6 Hagan played up the theme that Dole had been an “absentee” who rarely came to North Carolina, given her work as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.7 The campaign eventually turned negative, with threats of legal action and accusations of defamation.8 On Election Day, Hagan defeated Dole handily with 53 percent of the vote; Dole took 44 percent.9 Hagan had benefitted from the large African-American turnout and an energized Democratic base that supported Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. She declared that her win, coming on the same night as Obama’s election as President, was “a testament to how hungry people are for change.”10

When Hagan entered the Senate at the opening of the 111th Congress (2009–2011), she was assigned to three committees which she held for her entire term of service: Armed Services; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP); and Small Business and Entrepreneurship. In the 112th Congress (2011–2013), she added a seat on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee which she also held for the balance of her time in the Senate. On Armed Services, Hagan chaired the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee in both the 112th and 113th Congresses (2011–2015). She also was chairwoman of the HELP Children and Families Subcommittee in the 113th Congress (2013–2015).

Hagan entered Congress looking to build bipartisan relationships. “We have a Congress now that is kind of divided, and I want to be one of the ones that helps bring people together,” she said after her election.11 But she also sought to maintain her independence from her party on several key issues. When the Senate considered gun control legislation in 2013, she voted against proposed amendments to ban assault weapons and limit magazine sizes while voting in favor of an amendment to make it easier for concealed-carry permit holders to cross state lines with their firearms. She also opposed the Senate’s 2014 budget bill, drafted by Democrats, because she believed the $240 billion cut to military spending too steep.12

Hailing from a state with large banking interests, Hagan took a major interest in financial reforms. She supported the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that overhauled banking regulations in 2010, calling it “commonsense Wall Street reform so American taxpayers will never again have to shoulder the cost of a financial crisis.”13 From the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee in the next Congress, however, she supported measures to delay provisions of the bill that banned banks from proprietary trading (she had already coauthored an amendment in 2010 that exempted insurance companies) and that capped fees that banks could charge for transactions.14

Hagan also spoke out on tax reform and deficit reduction, arguing that current federal spending was unsustainable. “We cannot continue to grow the debt and run huge deficits each year with the expectation that our children will pay the bill,” she told colleagues.15 In January 2013, she voted for a tax and spending bill—the so-called fiscal cliff deal—that raised the tax rate on incomes in excess of $400,000.16

From her seat on the Armed Services Committee, Hagan tended to her state’s military installations and influenced decisions on military matters. In 2011 she supported the findings of a commission that recommended women be permitted to serve in combat zones. “Anybody who’s qualified should be able to serve,” Hagan observed. She and North Carolina’s senior Senator, Richard M. Burr, worked on a bipartisan bill to provide health services to individuals affected by water contamination at the sprawling Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in the eastern part of the state. It became law in 2012.17

Hagan looked out for her large agricultural constituency, particularly the tobacco industry, which represented a significant part of the state’s economy. She opposed a bill (that eventually became law) that allowed the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the manufacture, sale, and promotion of tobacco products, arguing largely that it would have an adverse impact on North Carolinians already reeling from the ill effects of the Great Recession.18 She also sought to include tobacco as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.19

In 2010 Hagan voted for the Affordable Care Act, the Democrats’ sweeping health care reform law, largely because she believed it would “eliminate discrimination based on gender and preexisting conditions.” Along with a group of Senate freshmen, led by Mark R. Warner of Virginia, she proposed a package of amendments to the bill, including one to speed up the vetting of Medicare and Medicaid claims using digital technology and another that proposed a program of “medication therapy management,” seeking to curb waste by educating patients on their prescription regimen.20

In 2014 Hagan faced Republican Thomas Roland (Thom) Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina house of representatives, for re-election in a race that promised to determine control of the Senate. Outside groups poured millions of dollars into attack ads that linked Hagan to President Obama and the Affordable Care Act.21 While Hagan led many polls into the early fall, political observers noted that the race boiled down to a referendum between North Carolinians’ concerns about political gridlock in Washington versus unhappiness with the state legislature under Tillis in Raleigh.22 On Election Day, Tillis prevailed by less than 50,000 votes out of a total of nearly 3 million; Tillis took 49 percent of the vote to Hagan’s 47 percent. Several third-party candidates, including Libertarian Sean Haugh who garnered more than 100,000 votes, captured the remaining ballots.23

After leaving the Senate at the conclusion of her term in early 2015, Hagan served as a resident fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, and she became a senior policy consultant at a major Washington, DC, based firm.24 Hagan died at her Greensboro home on October 28, 2019, three years after contracting encephalitis from a tick-borne virus.25


1Kyle Kennedy, “Joe Ruthven Paid a Price For Success,” 15 January 2008, The Ledger (Lakeland, FL): n.p.; Bill Rufty, “N.C. Lawmaker Draws on Lakeland Ties,” 1 February 2008, The Ledger: n.p.; Jeri Rowe, “Dear Sen. Hagan; Remember Us in Washington,” 6 January 2009, News & Record (Greensboro, NC): B1; Paul B. Johnson, “Hagan’s Uncle Plays Major Role,” 24 August 2008, High Point Enterprise (High Point, NC): n.p.; “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Kay Hagan,” 4 November 2008, U.S. News & World Report: n.p.; “Lawton Mainor Chiles, Jr.,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present, https://bioguide.congress.gov.

2“Kay Hagan,” Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, http://bioguide.congress.gov; Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2013): 722; Almanac of American Politics, 2010 (Washington, DC: National Journal, Inc., 2009): 1111–1112.

3Politics in America, 2014: 722; Shalia Dewan, “A Republican Incumbent Finds a Once-Safe Race Less So,” 16 October 2008, New York Times: A19.

4Dewan, “A Republican Incumbent Finds a Once-Safe Race Less So.”

5Politics in America, 2014: 721.

6Sarah Lueck, “Campaign ’08: Dole Fights to Hold North Carolina Seat,” 12 September 2008, Wall Street Journal: A8.

7Dewan, “A Republican Incumbent Finds a Once-Safe Race Less So.”

8Dewan, “A Republican Incumbent Finds a Once-Safe Race Less So”; Almanac of American Politics, 2010: 1112; Robbie Brown, “‘Godless’ Link Prompts Lawsuit,” 31 October 2008, New York Times: A22.

9Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

10Fredreka Schouten, “Hagan Takes Republican Seat of Dole,” 5 November 2008, USA Today: A12.

11Almanac of American Politics, 2012 (Chicago, IL: National Journal Group, Inc., 2011): 1204.

12Rachel Weiner, “How Almost All the Gun Amendments Failed,” 18 April 2013, Washington Post, n.p.; Congressional Record, Senate, 113th Cong., 1st sess. (22 March 2013): S2319; Politics in America, 2014: 722.

13Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (26 April 2010): S6230.

14Politics in America, 2014: 721; See also, Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 May 2010): S8928.

15Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (14 December 2010): S19841.

16Politics in America, 2014: 722.

17Politics in America, 2014: 722.

18See, for example, Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (4 June 2009): S13897.

19Politics in America, 2014: 721; Almanac of American Politics, 2012: 1204.

20Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (21 November 2009): S28759; Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (8 December 2009): S29750; Politics in America, 2014: 722.

21Matea Gold, “In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan Seeks to Ride Backlash Against State GOP Leaders,” 14 August 2014, Washington Post: n.p.; Katrinia vanden Heuvel, “In N.C., Populist Movement Buoys Democrat Kay Hagan,” 14 October 2014, Washington Post: n.p.

22Gold, “In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan Seeks to Ride Backlash Against State GOP Leaders”; Nate Cohn, “In North Carolina, Kay Hagan Shows Surprising Strength,” 25 September 2014, New York Times: A3.

23“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

24“Kay R. Hagan biography,” accessed 6 October 2016, https://www.akingump.com/en/lawyers-advisors/kay-r-hagan.html (link discontinued).

25Jim Morrill and Brian Murphy, “Former US Senator Kay Hagan Dead at 66 After Three-Year Battle with Encephalitis,” 28 October 2019, Charlotte Observer, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/politics-government/article236736088.html; Katharine Q. Seelye, “Kay Hagan, Former North Carolina Senator, Dies at 66,” 28 October 2019, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/28/us/politics/kay-hagan-dead.html; Harrison Smith, “Former U.S. Senator Kay Hagan, North Carolina Democrat, Dies at 66,” 28 October 2019, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/former-us-sen-kay-hagan-north-carolina-democrat-dies-at-66/2019/10/28/5fa17f2a-f9a2-11e9-ac8c-8eced29ca6ef_story.html.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of North Carolina
Special Collections

Greensboro, NC
Papers: Senatorial papers
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Bibliography / Further Reading

U.S. Congress. Tributes Delivered in Congress: Kay R. Hagan, United States Senator, 2009-2015. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2015.

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